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Representing death row: An interview with Niall Carlin

Programme and Student Lead for the GDL and MA Niall Carlin joined The University of Law in 2016. Prior to this, he travelled to the USA to represent defendants on death row with the charity Amicus. We caught up with Niall to discuss his experiences of practising law in America and how this has influenced his opinions on the death penalty.

By Cara Fielder. Published 3 October 2022. Last updated 24 November 2021.

I decided on a legal career as I was interested in politics and human rights from a young age. The idea of working in law seemed like a practical way of being involved in those areas as a job.

I grew up in Belfast in Northern Ireland, studied undergraduate law at The University of Liverpool, worked as a paralegal for a year after university, and took a year out to do a round-the-world trip. During this time I worked for a law firm representing indigent defendants on death row in Houston in the USA through Amicus. I travelled across the United States, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. I lived and worked in New Zealand as a criminal barrister in New Zealand and travelled across Australia and Thailand.

When I returned to the UK, I did the bar postgraduate course at Manchester Metropolitan University and went on to secure pupillage at Broadway House Chambers in West Yorkshire where I was based for 6 years practising in criminal and regulatory law including Crown Court jury trials.

I joined ULaw in 2016 and I have taught on the BPC, LPC, GDL, LLB, AMIL (criminal law, skills and human rights). I am currently the GDL, MA Law and AMIL programme lead for the Leeds and Sheffield campuses.

When I worked for Amicus, I was based at the Texas Defender Service in Houston where I was an intern and my role was like a bit like a UK paralegal – I did a lot of administrative type work in the office but I also went on trips to death row to meet with clients and conducted home visits around Texas with family members of clients to try and gather helpful information for ongoing cases.

It was a brilliant experience, living and working on capital cases in Texas.

I discovered Amicus when I was working as a paralegal after university. I knew I wanted to go into criminal law and/or human rights so I researched different people and organisations involved in that type of work.

I discovered Amicus, attended Amicus training in London for death row work (across two weekends) and then applied to do the internship in the United States.

I have maintained my involvement with Amicus over the years and I am now one of their formal speakers who help train people in death penalty litigation for when they do internships.

The US is perhaps the most powerful, wealthy and developed country in history. As such, I would suggest that it has a responsibility to lead by example in issues like criminal law, human rights and politics. At the moment, the death penalty is legal in 28 US states and the US Government and US Military also retain the death penalty. Even aside from the debate as to whether the death penalty should exist at all, there are serious problems with the way it is administered in the United States.

To name but a few, there are issues in relation to race and arbitrariness of imposition depending on the geographical location of where offences are committed. Also, since 1973, so far, 170 people who have been sent to death row to be executed have been subsequently exonerated.

There is also a quote I like and think is pertinent to the work Amicus does for those of us living in the UK:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

The most surprising thing I’ve learnt from Amicus is that so many people in the UK seem to share similar views that I have in relation to these issues, such that they continue to turn out in large numbers for Amicus training twice a year, in addition to actually travelling to the United States to do this work.

I don’t think that the end of the death penalty is guaranteed in our lifetime. I think a lot of people in the UK may be surprised at how popular capital punishment is among the US public. For example, California is considered to be one of the more liberal States in the US, politically speaking. In 2016, there was a public referendum in California on whether to abolish the death penalty or not (Proposition 62). On a 75% turnout of over 14 million votes, 53% of the electorate voted in favour of retaining capital punishment (46% against).

There are lots of ways students can get involved with Amicus. For example, you can start official Amicus groups at university campuses that raise awareness and funding for Amicus (which is a small, independent charity). Students are eligible to attend Amicus training and even go to the United States to do one of their internships. Full details are available on the Amicus website and/or at the email address: [email protected]

I have really enjoyed my time at ULaw and over the next five years, I would very much like to continue to be part of ULaw’s continued growth and training of the next generation of UK lawyers.

My advice to students is to enjoy your time studying but also treat your studies like a full-time job (work on them 9am – 5pm Monday to Friday). You can still enjoy your evenings and weekends doing whatever you like but treating your studies like a full-time job means you will stay on top of it all.

In my view, studying in higher education is a privilege and a great opportunity. If you treat it like a full-time job you will do really well, fulfil your potential and have no regrets.


Learn more about working with Amicus on our blog with alumna Kate Pryer.