There's a bizarre programme on Channel 4 tonight called The Execution of Gary Glitter - the basic idea is capital punishment has returned to the UK and Gary Glitter is first up for the noose. (It's not the only bizarre what-if programme put out by Channel 4 - Death of a President dramatised George W. Bush getting shot. What next? The Waterboarding of Tony Blair? Why not - and in real life too as reality torture, right up Channel 4's alley.). Gary Glitter is an easy target, and there are lots of reasons to hate paedophiles - but there are also other views and Clive Stafford Smith (who has fought for criminally imprisoned Guantanamo detainees as well as consistently battling the death penalty) gives his view on the programme below.
The Execution of Gary Glitter: why do we love to hate paedophiles?
Which group of people is most consistently hated by virtually the entire British population? Would they be murderers? Muslim extremists? No, there is one group that comes top every time I ask the question: paedophiles.
The degree of hatred for is consistent and venomous. The vilification runs so rampant that when one tabloid newspaper ran a campaign against ‘paedos’, some poor paediatrician had her house vandalized.
Now Channel Four has entered the fray, reintroducing the possibility of the death penalty into British society, and staging the televisual hanging of Gary Glitter, convicted as the paedophile we love to hate. While the jurors in the drama are actors, if Simon Cowell ran the programme as the X-ecute Factor, the texts pouring in would no doubt have turned a technological thumbs down.
I wonder how many of these voters would ever have paused to consider what causes people to be sexually attracted to small children? How many people, in other words, have ever wondered whether they, or anyone else, would ever choose to be a paedophile?
It would seem self-evident that paedophilia is a mental illness. To be sure, a very dangerous illness for all its victims and one that must be addressed through measures that make our children as safe as they can be. But I have represented a number of paedophiles over the years and, while I only have to look at my own small child to fully evoke the horror of each offence, I have learned as much about the world from these terrible cases as from any.
Indeed, one of my heroines is Lorelei Guillory. Her six year old child Jeremy was killed by my client, Ricky Langley (pictured), in Southwest Louisiana. There is no doubt that he did it. No doubt at all. But does that mean we should execute him, as well as despise his crime?
A year before Ricky was born, his father, drunk, drove the family car into a bridge. Two children were instantly killed. One was the six year old, tousle-haired Oscar Lee. The mother, Bessie, was catastrophically injured. She spent most of the next two years in hospital, much of the time in a full-length bodycast, from her neck to her ankles.
It is perhaps a tribute to the father’s utter heartlessness that this was when Ricky was conceived. Nobody believed Bessie was pregnant for more than five months. She continued to be prescribed a pharmacy full of drugs, and the unborn Ricky suffered his own private Hiroshima from all the x-rays. When they finally cut the cast open, there was a whooosh! The doctors strongly urged an abortion; the husband, rigorously Catholic, refused.
By the age of eleven, Ricky was already sleeping on tombstones, and pinning notes on the school board telling people that he was really his dead brother Oscar Lee. His early records lay to rest the possibility that his mental illness in later life could be feigned. It took a long time, but he eventually trusted me enough to say that I could meet with Oscar Lee if his dead brother wanted to talk to me. Ricky is perhaps the most seriously mentally ill person I have ever met.
Ricky is a paedophile. People may despise him for it, but nobody could hate Ricky more than he does himself. At this point he hates Oscar Lee as well. In the roiling storm clouds of his mind, Ricky hears Oscar Lee prompting him to molest children. Whether you can understand it or not, when Ricky strangled Jeremy Guillory, he thought he was killing Oscar Lee.
By definition, mental illness is not rational, but I showed Ricky’s aunt a picture of poor Oscar Lee in 1963, and a picture of Jeremy in 1991, and she could not tell them apart. This is the closest that you and I will ever come to seeing inside Ricky’s mind.
In common with so many family members, themselves innocent victims of murder, Lorilei desperately wanted to understand why her child had been torn from her. Like so much of the media, and so many government officials, the prosecuting attorney encouraged her merely to seek revenge and assured her she would find relief when Ricky got the death penalty.
Perhaps he really did believe this would end her pain; certainly he wanted to get re-elected. Lorilei initially testified for the prosecution, and Ricky was sentenced to death. Years passed, appeals were filed, Ricky got a new trial, and Lorilei still had no peace.
This time around, Lorelei asked me whether she could meet Ricky. Naturally, I agreed. She wanted to be alone with him. I told her there would be no strings attached; if she wanted to testify against him later, quoting what he said, that would be her choice.
Ricky was grateful. He had the chance to apologize. He did his best to explain what happened and why. He said he was fine with being locked up for the rest of his life. He was convinced that he was incurable and he was afraid of himself, as much as he was of Oscar Lee.
Lorelei had always referred to him as ‘Langley.’ As she left the cell, convinced that he was indeed profoundly ill, she said, “Ricky, I’m gonna fight for you.” And fight she did.
First, she insisted that she did not want the death penalty. She, too, was a Catholic, and her faith told her that she would gain no catharsis from his death. The prosecutor said she was “an odd defendant (sic)”, and then tried to have her other child removed from her, calling her an unfit mother.
Then we picked twelve jurors who understood mental illness, and it became clear that Ricky would not receive the death penalty this time round. At this point, Lorelei confronted her own demons, and came out of long night of prayer decided: Ricky was insane, and since he could not control what he did, he should not be punished for it. He should, rather, be in a mental hospital.
She insisted that he remain in hospital forever, and he agreed. But she insisted on testifying, and told me to only ask one question.
“Ms Guillory, do you have an opinion as to whether that man over there”—I pointed to Ricky Langley—“who killed your child Jeremy, was mentally ill at the time he did it?”
She took a deep breath. “I feel like Ricky Langley has cried out for help many, many, many times. And for whatever reasons his family, society, and the system has failed him. I feel like he is sick, and that he has cried out for help.” She turned to the jurors. “And even though I can hear my child’s death cry, I too, can hear Ricky Langley cry for help.” And yes, he was sick.
The jurors acquitted Ricky Langley of capital murder. Desperate for ‘victory’, the prosecutors violated the rules again, to make sure Ricky would go to prison rather than a hospital. Now Lorelei must endure a third trial, which is on-going even as I write this.
As for Lorelei, she insists that she has never forgiven Ricky; she has only told the truth, and tried to be merciful. Almost twenty years after her loss, she continues to struggle every day.
And yet she stands as a beacon to the rest of us. It is a shame that Channel Four failed to observe her golden rule: Hate the sin, but try to understand the sinner, or the world will remain a dangerous place for our children.
A version of this article appeared in The Guardian.