July 3, 2009 / 2:11 PM / 10 years ago

Face-to-face with death row inmates at London show

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Death row inmates depicted in oil paintings by British artist Claire Phillips, on view in London’s South Bank gallery@oxo, have one thing in common.

British artist Claire Phillips stands by her oil paintings of death row inmates, in this 2009 handout photo. REUTERS/Michael Phillips/Handout

“All are demonstrably innocent, or very probably innocent,” according to Clive Stafford Smith, director of prisoners’ rights organization Reprieve, which sponsors the touring five-day “Human Face of Death Row” exhibit on show at Oxo until July 5.

“They are very powerless people who face an incredible distillation of hatred resulting in society wanting them dead.”

Among the paintings of three current inmates is Briton Linda Carty, who has been on death row in Texas for eight years for murdering a neighbor. Her case is in the final stage of the appeals process.

The prosecution’s case was based on testimony from three people accused of the same murder who, in exchange for statements against Carty, avoided the death penalty, according to Reprieve.

The four-hour visit Phillips had with Carty was held under armed guard.

“They will be executing her soon,” Phillips said of the experience.

“It’s very different in each visit — Linda just chatted away and ate the five rice krispie bars and a cherry coke I took her.”

Phillips, originally from Hammersmith in London, was not permitted to take any painting tools with her when she visited the inmates, so created the portraits from memory and other sources.

The exhibition also includes images of three former death row inmates who were freed after serving prison terms, along with an executioner; a legislator who introduced lethal injection and a foreperson on a jury that convicted and sentenced a man to death who was later found to be innocent.

“All the black people are on death row and all the white people are in positions of authority,” Phillips said of her portraits.

“I didn’t intend to become a campaigner,” she added. “As an artist I wanted to communicate their stories.

“I’ve achieved putting the stories together. Make your mind up — is this system the way to go?”

Reprieve founder and lawyer Stafford Smith is also featured in one of the paintings.

Phillips selected him as a subject because she was intrigued by him as someone “who had all the advantages of a public school education and yet had chosen to ignore the attractions of wealth and materialism in order to defend the powerless and vulnerable.”

Originally from the U.S., Stafford Smith has worked on getting due process for Guantanamo inmates since 2004, as well as death penalty cases.

“As much as in the old days we would sacrifice an animal to God to solve our problems, today we take the life of a human being,” Stafford Smith said, adding that politics of fear and hatred fuel the urge to invoke the death penalty.

Editing by Steve Addison

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