Six Months that Changed My Life: A Profile of Christabel McCooey

Outside the court room,   26-year-old Christabel McCooey gives the impression of an impulsive university student, rather than a barrister several months into her pupillage.

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Her legal attraction was a slow and gradual process, beginning at her parents’ home in London Road, Sittingbourne. Sipping coffee in a cafe near St Pancras Station the pupil barrister from Sittingbourne Kent, now living in Bethnal Green, describes how all her decisions on where to work were made on a whim.  But one constancy in her life has been her passion to use the law to see justice done.  A passion born when she decided to spend six months of her life in New Orleans, working with people on death row.

Miss McCooey said: “My parents ran a solicitors’ practice from our family home, so ever since I can remember there were clients coming in and out of the house.  I would be hearing over the dinner table how law managed to find a resolution to very difficult very emotional problems that people had.  So I saw from a very young age that law can change the outcome of people’s crises and can really make a difference.”

It seemed natural that Miss McCooey should follow her parents into a legal career.  However, she was determined to find her own way in life.  She had set her sights on a career in journalism and writes for the Justice Gap, an online legal magazine in her spare time.  But a full time career in this subject ended abruptly, when a half hour long lecture on law had her signing up to study law at Bristol University.

She said: “I remember being surprisingly gripped by the issues that came up, and trying to look for the right answer in a big grey mixture of fact.  Trying to find out what is the answer, and what do you think the answer is?  I thought it so interesting that I thought right this is the route for me.”

After completing her degree, Miss McCooey had developed a taste for travel, and an opportunity to see the Hong Kong legal system in action arose.  But the would-be barrister found herself faced with the student’s dilemma, of what to do next.  Many of her friends had graduated before her, and joined the magic circle of big solicitors firms.  This is generally reckoned as a doorstep to a highly successful career.  She noticed that the novelty of working for a big firm wore off fast.

The pupil barrister said: “They felt they were doing a massive amount of paperwork, and whilst they were earning a lot of money, they weren’t using their skills to help people directly.  Their work was focussed on money and about money, it didn’t give them the satisfaction they’d imagined when they chose law.

“As the deadlines for the training contracts came up, I remember thinking I can’t do this and I’m not going to do it!  So I let the deadlines slide.  People on my course said you’re mad!  What are you going to do now?  And I remember saying that something would come up.  It was saying no to the well trodden route, it was saying no to what everyone thought success was for my peer group and leaving the door open for whatever else might come up next.”

Two weeks later, an email set Miss McCooey’s life on a course even she had not expected.  It was an invitation to a lecture given by an English lawyer working for Amicus, a charity that gives legal students to assist lawyers working with people on death row in the USA.  As most prisoners on death row are unable to pay for lawyers, people working in this area are sometimes forced to rely on charity hand-outs from their course tutors to survive.

Miss McCooey remembers: “I was mesmerized by what he was saying, and by the facts. The lawyers themselves do not get paid by the clients and they get pitifully small allowances to represent people in capital trials.  And through the appeals process and trial itself there’s hardly any money for the lawyers at all so they’re desperate for people to come and help them.”

Having been mesmerised and then applying to join Amicus, her introduction to the charity was dramatic, and she can still recall it vividly on a cold November day in 2015.

She said: “I remember sitting at the back of the theatre watching this video of a man on death row, and he was missing half his face!  He had this huge hole in his face.  He’d tried to kill himself by shooting himself through the mouth with a shotgun.  And when that failed he was so devastated, that he went on a shooting rampage and killed several people.

“It was a horrific act but in his eyes and when he spoke, there was such pain and suffering that I thought, there are reasons why people commit these crimes.  It’s not as simple as someone having a cup of tea and then deciding to shoot someone.  Often people come from places of deep pain and sorrow, and we need to understand what is actually driving people to commit horrific crimes so we can stop it in the future.  This motivated me to really want to go out there.”

To her delight Amicus accepted her application, and shortly told her she would be posted to New Orleans.  On paper this was the most desirable of posts, because it’s the heart of jazz, blues and live music.  Although she felt ready to go, students coming to New Orleans for this kind of work are warned that there would be grim realities, and that the assignment would be no holiday.   Miss McCooey was posted to work with The Capital Appeals Project (CAP) an organisation devoted to helping inmates on death row and their families.  One of her colleagues who did not wish to be named confirmed that it was a difficult place for anyone to work.

He said: “The work can be quite depressing at times because generally speaking, our clients had terrible upbringings, committed terrible crimes and then were sentenced to death by a terrible system of justice.  One might spend hours on end reviewing information that is disturbing and difficult to process or spend days observing a painfully lopsided trial.  There are many layers as to how the work can wear on a person.  Successes were rare and in most cases, success means a life sentence instead of death.”

As soon as Miss McCooey arrived in New Orleans in September 2012, it became clear her assignment was not for the faint of heart.

She said: “I arrived on the tail end of a hurricane!  There were felled trees in the middle of the road, there was no electricity whatsoever when I arrived.   And I thought Right, this  is an adventure.  But what struck me was how friendly people were and how easy going.  The next day there was no food available because all the shops were shut, but you’d find people with kerosene lamps cooking up pancakes and they’d offer you food.  I found them very hospitable.”

Miss McCooey spent three months as an intern working for CAP.

She said: “I was an intern whose work involved veering from checking through medical records to see if there’s anything untoward in them, taking families of people on death row to see their loved ones, and looking through paperwork and case filing.”

This brought her into contact with Damon Thibodeaux.  Placed on death row in Angola Prison, when he was 23, he spent 16 years waiting to die, before DNA evidence cleared him of murder.

Miss McCooey sees this case and indeed the American system as manifestly unjust.

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Christabel with Damon Thibodeaux

She said: “The US has the highest incarceration rate in the West and possibly the world.  In Louisiana the average sentence for any offense is 90 years!  It’s a very punitive mentality, with money and profits dictating a private industry.  People who find themselves in prison wait two or three years to see a court, (this would be for non violent offenses) where over here you’d be out in a few months.  This is because the prisons themselves get paid per head to have prisoners inside, so there’s a money incentive to have people locked away.  You can get multiple life sentences and sent to prison until you’re 300 years old.”

Another serious issue that blighted the pupil barrister’s stay in New Orleans was the rampant racism she saw everywhere.

She said: “The old characteristics of inequality are still present.  Angola the huge state prison is based on the same grounds as the old slave plantation.  Where in recent history you had white people on horseback, with guns standing over black slaves, now there are still white people on horseback standing over black prisoners in orange jumpsuits.  And they have to work the fields to this day.  The echoes of racism were very strong.”

“Statistically, if you’re a black person and you kill a white person, you’re almost guaranteed to end up on death row.  Whereas white people killing black people, there’s a far lower rate of convictions and also the death penalty.  You will find ethnic minorities disproportionately featured in death row cases.”

Although Miss McCooey remained at CAP for only three months, her colleagues remember her with great fondness.

One of them, who did not wish to be named said: “I remember Christabel as being thoughtful and serious about her work, though with a good sense of humour.  It can be depressing work, so you need a sense of humour to get by.  As I recall, she tended to think of big picture issues and was not confined to thinking in terms of legal technicalities as some in the profession can be.”

Miss McCooey’s passion to right the wrongs of the American Justice System saw her continuing her stay in New Orleans to work with The Louisiana Coalition for Alternatives to the death penalty. She said: “We were working on a catch phrase while I was there but I’ve forgotten it.  They lobby government to abolish the death penalty.  So I met with State Senators and attended events such as big Republican pro life rallies, because ironically the pro life movement is very pro death penalty.  We were saying look, if you value life at the beginning, surely you must value it at the end, life remains sacred throughout, no matter what people may do.”

The time spent away from the strictly legal sphere, gave Miss McCooey more time to conduct interviews that further proved to her the injustice of the American justice system.

She said: “I interviewed members of the public about jury service, because if you disagree with the death penalty out of principle, you cannot sit as a juror in a capital trial.  That’s not a fair representation of society, because there are people who don’t support the death penalty.”

Her fondest memories of her last three months in New Orleans, are that she was able to meet some fascinating people.  They include Sister Helen Prejean author of the 1993 book Dead Man Walking that formed the base of the blockbuster Hollywood movie of the same name.  A woman who has now dedicated her life to finding out why society still has the death penalty.  She also met the Archbishop of Louisiana, while organising a state vigil against the execution of a 68-year-old death row Inmate.

Miss McCooey said: “I was cycling to the event to organise it and had just decided I’d  better get ready and look presentable.  And just as I was stuffing fresh socks on, I saw him coming round the corner.”

Having returned to the UK, Miss McCooey managed to slot in a two week trip to Israel,  before finally applying for the bar, (on a whim yet again) to take her barrister training course.

She said: “I applied at midnight on the last day, but I got in and spent a year on my course.  I also worked for a Christian charity called Speak and wrote for an online news source called The Justice Gap, when I was doing my exams.”

“I’ve just got pupillage so I’m working for Goldsmiths Chambers.  I’m in court every day and I’m learning from my supervisor and after six months I’ll have my own cases in court.  My supervisor specialises in prosecuting sex cases, it’s quite heavy going but very interesting.”

Having experienced British and American courts, Miss McCooey remains very vocal on the latter’s failings.

She said: “American justice stands out because it’s very politicised.  Judges and governors of prisons are electaed, so if they’re facing an election they don’t want to be seen as being soft on crime.  That translates as anyone having power over a prisoners life saying right I’m going to go for the death penalty, because then my potential voters will re-elect me, because I’m supposedly tough on crime.  There’s a direct self-interest in the decisions made through-out the criminal justice process, from when a person is arrested to when a governor has the final say in whether to grant a pardon in a death penalty case.

“Likewise the juries are chosen by lawyers on both sides and can be dismissed because of their political views, or because they’re seen as unhelpful to either side.  Here juries are appointed at random and judges have a fixed term, so they are less influenced by public opinion and by the majority view of the time.”

Three years on from New Orleans, Miss McCooey remains adamantly opposed to any idea that the death penalty works.

She said: “I absolutely feel the repulsion at these horrific crimes.  But the question is what will stop them happening in the future?  And whilst vengeance feels good if someone punches you, you want to punch them back.  If someone does a bad act, you want them to suffer, ultimately that will not solve crime and it will not redeem the situation.  It’s not the right approach, if we truly want to end crime.”

As for motivation, Miss McCooey is motivated by her four-year-long faith as a practicing Christian.  A faith that remains crucial even when she found the American Republican Christian Community to be anti abortion but pro death.

The pupil barrister said: “It’s made me see that every life is precious no matter what crime anyone’s done, no matter how low they’re viewed by parts of society.  Whether they’re a refugee from Syria, a crack addict, a prostitute, or a horrific criminal who’s got an appalling record.  They’re still valued in the eyes of God.  This motivates me to represent those people that others would not want to represent and to maintain that humanity should run through the Criminal Justice System.  We should not just strike people off, and forget about them, we should work with them to improve their lives so that in future less crime will take place.”

BY David Wilkins, who is a free lance journalist

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