Victim’s mother puts Death Row on trial

Lorilei Guillory’s fight to prevent the man who murdered her son being executed has been turned into a powerful theatrical drama, writes Clive Stafford Smith.

Hollywood movies seem obsessed with Death Row these days. They inevitably begin with a horrific murder, a suspect is identified, and a death sentence imposed. Being Hollywood, the condemned is generally innocent and, thanks to an inspirational young lawyer, justice almost always prevails after an obligatory courtroom climax.

Reality is more sober, as it is in Lorilei, a play being staged by the campaigning organisation Reprieve at this year’s fringe. Unlike Hollywood, there is no issue of actual innocence here — simply the most compelling of human stories.

The premise for the piece is a crime committed by a Death Row client of mine, Ricky Langley. He is a paedophile who had already served a prison sentence for molesting children when he was accused of murdering the six-year-old Jeremy Guillory in February 1992.

Two years later, I represented Langley at his first trial and he was sentenced to death. I have accompanied clients to the execution chamber six times to watch them die. However ugly that moment may be, there is often a glimmer of humanity, often from surprising quarters. The prison guards have often got to know the condemned, and whisper to me in the hallways that they would rather not take part in the execution.

For me, far more depressing is the moment when 12 jurors file back into the courtroom and announce a death sentence. This represents the ultimate failure: 12 people with a free choice, who choose death. In the case of Langley, a profoundly mentally ill man, the effect of the sentence on me was almost unbearable. The jurors said afterwards that they believed he was ill — but that meant he was dangerous, and their priority was to ensure that he would never harm another child.

But Langley was given a second chance when an appeals court ordered a retrial in 2002. Once again a jury would decide whether Langley should live or die. Lorilei is the story of the person who convinced them to spare his life.

Lorilei Guillory is the mother of the victim. By the time of the second trial, she had been living with the horror of her son’s murder for almost a decade. The prosecutor’s promise that the death sentence would provide “closure” for her had proven hollow, and she had struggled with depression and addiction.

In the run-up to the second trial, Guillory pored over the evidence, much of which had been hidden from her 10 years before. Ultimately, she asked if she could meet Langley, believing it would help her understand her loss.

Langley agreed without hesitation, and she met him alone in the jail. He first apologised and then tried to explain his own story. Those who have met Langley are intrigued by his fascination with genealogy: he has traced his family back through 200 years, and has got as far as 18th-century church records in England. Langley, like Guillory, wants to understand what led him to kill her child.

Before he was born, Langley’s own five-year-old brother, Oscar Lee, was killed in a car accident in which his mother Bessie was badly injured. Unknown to the doctors, Bessie became pregnant with Langley while in a full-length bodycast. Langley the foetus floated in waters laced with narcotic medications, exposed to his own private Hiroshima through his mother’s regular x-ray examinations. Bessie wanted to abort the pregnancy but her husband refused. He wanted a son to replace the tousle-haired Oscar Lee.

Langley’s schizophrenia was almost inevitable, and was documented back to the age of 11 when he first announced on his school noticeboard that he was his dead brother, Oscar Lee. Oscar Lee evolved from an imaginary childhood friend into his very real tormentor. Just as Langley came to hate Oscar Lee, so he came to hate himself. His own mother had told him she wished he had never been born. Langley cried when he later told me that when Guillory agreed to meet him it was the kindest act anyone had ever shown him, his victim’s mother showing more compassion than his own.

Guillory came to believe that our defence was the truth: Langley had indeed been insane at the time he killed her son. “Ricky,” she said at the end of their three-hour meeting, “I’m going to fight for you.”

As the second trial progressed it became clear that we had a very educated and sympathetic jury and it was unlikely that they would vote for capital murder. Guillory now faced a far more difficult dilemma: would she follow the logic of her newfound position to its end and testify as to his guilt? She believed that Langley had not understood what he was doing when he killed her six-year-old child. This would mean that he could be found “not guilty by reason of insanity” and not go to prison at all, but to a secure hospital.

Most important to Guillory was that no other child should face harm, and she was comforted by the fact that Langley agreed that he should never be released from a secure psychiatric hospital. Langley signed an agreement requesting that he be hospitalised forever, as he wanted to be studied so that future generations “can avoid another me”. Guillory prayed, she agonised, and in the end she announced that she wanted to testify at the guilt phase of the trial.

At her request, I was to ask only one question: “Ms Guillory, do you have an opinion as to whether Ricky Langley was mentally ill at the time he killed your child Jeremy?” Her answer was the most powerful moment I have experienced in a courtroom in more than 20 years of practice: “Yes, as a matter of fact I do,” she replied. “I feel like Ricky Langley has cried out for help many, many, many times. And for whatever reasons, his family, society and the system have failed him. I feel like he is sick. And even as I sit on this witness stand, I can hear my child’s death cry. But I too can hear Ricky Langley cry for help.”

Delivering the closing argument in a capital case ranks among the most difficult burdens in life. In Langley’s case, the task was simple. I merely had to remind the jurors of what Guillory had said. They acquitted him of first-degree murder, and found him guilty of second-degree murder, removing the death penalty from the table. Nevertheless, this meant that the jury had rejected that Langley was “not guilty by reason of insanity ” and he would be sent to prison for the rest of his life.

In America, the criminal justice system sometimes seems designed to inspire victims towards revenge. We are told that to try to understand a criminal is to mollycoddle him: right is right, and the criminal is just plain wrong. But as Guillory learned, vengeance does not salve wounds, but rather makes them fester. She who hates becomes twice the victim.

Ultimately, the choice is a stark one: do we as a society wish to foster compassion, or would we rather encourage revenge? The answer may seem obvious, but it is still remarkable that Guillory should have found such depths to her compassion. Thankfully, she is not alone. Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) is one American charity that does inspirational work, in helping those who have lost loved ones to forego vengeance and work to end capital punishment.

Reprieve works in the trenches, fighting for the lives of people facing the death penalty, so what does an hour of theatre count for in this cause? The answer is that the performance of Guillory tells the story on a much deeper level than simply reading about a case in the headlines, or ploughing through another rant of mine in the opinion pages. What makes this play particularly compelling is that it was written using Guillory’s own words — the author, Tom Wright, wrote the script using interviews recorded by Guillory at the time that she was making her momentous decision.

Guillory’s story was originally heard by an audience of 12 jurors in a courthouse in Calcasieu Parish in southwest Louisiana. The story changed the lives of all who were present. Now a play has arrived in Edinburgh and I invite fringe audiences to take the opportunity to decide for themselves how they would have voted had they been faced with the choice of life or death for Ricky Langley, in the face of this mother’s testimony.

Clive Stafford Smith is the legal director of Reprieve (http://www.reprieve.org.uk/), a UK charity fighting for the lives of people facing the death penalty. Lorilei is at the Pleasance Dome, Aug 7-29 .