On The Coal Face: The Inspiring Richard Bourke On A Life Against Death Row


Stephen Keim SC and Daniel Caruana meet an Australian lawyer who gave up the high life in Melbourne to fight for death row inmates in the United States.

“All poor, mostly black.”

That is how Richard Bourke described the clients he acts for, in his role as Director of the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center (LCAC) in New Orleans. Richard is a barrister, from Australia, who for the last 16 years has acted for impoverished and disadvantaged clients either charged with capital offences or already on death row, in Louisiana.

Back in Australia for a short period of time, Richard recently spoke to a packed house in the Banco Court of the Supreme Court of Queensland in Brisbane. Richard was invited to speak by Australians Against Capital Punishment and the Julian Wagner Memorial Fund, two organisations committed to the abolition of the death penalty worldwide.

The talk was made possible by financial support from the TC Beirne Law School at the University of Queensland and the Law School’s Alumni.

After an introduction by the Honourable Justice Peter Applegarth, Richard spoke to Paul Barclay from the ABC Big Ideas program. The insights he gave into his career path in the law, his journey to Louisiana and his work with the LCAC were, in equal parts, inspiring, despairing and, surprisingly, optimistic.

Before he permanently relocated to Louisiana, Richard enjoyed a thriving practice at the Bar in Victoria. In 1998, he spent some months volunteering as an intern in New Orleans where he assisted clients facing the death penalty. In 2001 he, and fellow Australian barrister, Nick Harrington, founded Reprieve Australia, an organisation that sends Australian volunteers to work on death penalty cases in the southern US states. Richard permanently relocated to the US in 2002 and has been with the LCAC since then.

Early in their discussion, Paul Barclay asked Richard, the obvious question, “why?”. After all, he had a growing and lucrative practice at the Victorian Bar. Why give up that lucrative career to assist indigent clients in the most distressing and depressing of circumstances? Richard explained that he had reached a crossroads in his career. The way he saw it, he could, a) go back to Louisiana, or b) go read a book on a beach somewhere in Brazil. It is a testament to his commitment to the most marginalised and desperate in society that he chose the former over the latter.

It was encouraging to hear Richard speak of the camaraderie amongst his colleagues at the LCAC and their ability to continue the fight, in a system which is, in his words, “rigged to convict and kill your client”. It was a confronting statement from a man with first-hand experience of a system which seems so alien to lawyers sitting in a court room in Australia.

Death penalty lawyer Richard Bourke, pictured in Brisbane earlier this year with ABC’s Paul Barclay.

All Australian jurisdictions had abolished the death penalty by 1985. Queensland did so in 1922. The last legal execution in Australia occurred in 1967 when Ronald Ryan was hanged in Victoria. In contrast, 23 people were legally put to death in the USA in 2017 alone.

Many criminal defence lawyers were in the Banco Court to hear Richard speak. No doubt, most of them were contemplating their own practice. The emotional toll which must flow from representing clients in a system where your failure could lead to their death is something which most Australian lawyers can only imagine and, thankfully, do not have to personally experience.

However, when asked about the emotional toll of his work Richard was emphatic that the job did not, for him, come with a net emotional toll. He spoke of the positive emotional experience of a successful result and the satisfaction that comes from doing what you can to help the despairing family members of clients.

It was clear listening to Richard that he is inspired by the incredible commitment of the volunteer interns and other staff members with whom he works. He gave the example of a staff member driving many hours to collect a client’s family member, just so they could visit their loved one.

The same staff member would wait in a car, in the prison car park, for a further hour whilst the visit took place and then drive a number of hours to drop the family member off back at home. This willingness to go above and beyond what is normally considered to be the role of a lawyer speaks to the passion of those people who work with Richard on a daily basis.

By far the most moving and affecting moment of Richard’s discussion with Paul came when he was asked about a time he had seen a client executed.

There was a palpable tension and sorrow in the room whilst Richard spoke of the events. The detail with which he described the lead up to the execution and the execution itself left the audience with no doubt that he was personally affected by the experience. In an understated way, he described the process as “a singularly miserable experience”.

Louisiana State Penitentiary, where death row inmates are housed.

Some might ask why Richard would attend such an event, why put himself through that misery when he had done everything he could for his client. His job, it might be argued, was over. However, Richard said that, for him, it was meaningful to be there for his client and his client’s family.

It was obvious throughout Richard’s discussion that he goes about his work with an incredible awareness of the families involved. Not just the family of his client, but also the family of his client’s victims.

He told the story of his client, Chuck. Chuck was convicted of murdering three people. At the time of committing the offences he was hallucinating as a result of LSD use and was being heavily influenced by a third party, encouraging him to fire the fatal shots whilst he was in his drug induced haze.

Once he came down from the drugs, Chuck was horrified by his actions. In Richard’s words, he expressed his remorse through his reform and was determined to express the remorse to the families of his victims.

Often in death penalty cases, the views of the victims’ families can prove determinative as to whether or not a death sentence is passed. In his role as Chuck’s attorney, Richard reached out to the families of Chuck’s victims. Of Chuck’s four victims, three of the families did not want Chuck to receive the death penalty. However, the mother of the fourth victim was of the view that she owed it to her deceased daughter to seek the highest penalty available.

Ultimately, the mother of the fourth victim agreed to have a meeting with Chuck. The two of them had a private conversation for over an hour. At the end of the meeting, she hugged Chuck and said that she was going to fight for him.

She ultimately spoke in court, on behalf of Chuck, as the mother of someone he had killed and spoke about the importance, for her, of forgiving Chuck. Richard admitted that seeing the mother speak in court moved him to tears.

Richard Bourke, one of the authors (Stephen Keim SC) and Kate Schuetze, Amnesty Researcher for the Pacific and Asia.

Hearing Richard’s story, it is hard not to be struck by the contrast between the compassion of the victim’s mother, so horribly affected by Chuck’s crimes, and the unforgiving nature of a system which imposes the death penalty on human beings.

Despite the harrowing subject matter of his presentation, the audience did not leave the Banco Court with a sense of despair. The stories of Richard and his colleagues were inspiring. It was encouraging to hear that there were people of great passion and ability willing to give their time to fight for the most marginalised members of society, whose lives are in jeopardy.

Whilst it is troubling to consider the number of people still being executed in the United States, Richard ended the discussion on a positive note. When asked for his view on the progress of the abolition movement in the United States, he was emphatic. “The death penalty in the US is coming to an end”.

It is clear enough that, if his prophecy does come true, and the death penalty is abolished in the USA, it will be passionate advocates like Richard Bourke and his staff that the abolition movement has to thank.

Perhaps, it was this which inspired the audience. Reprieve Australia, the anti-death penalty organisation which Richard helped establish 20 years ago, runs a volunteer program arranging for Australians, lawyers law students and others, to serve stints of at least three months working at centres like the LCAC.

By the end of the night, the representative of Reprieve Australia who had flown up from Sydney was being rushed off her feet by people wanting her volunteer information pack. Richard Bourke had convinced his audience that, while it might be thoroughly miserable if your client is executed despite your best efforts, it is even more miserable if we stand aside and do not even try.

Australians can make a difference around the world if we are prepared to put in the effort. Richard shows his audience that volunteering to work on death penalty cases, even doing menial work that saves the time and energy of the skilled advocates working with you, is a fabulous thing to do.

Hopefully, that inspiration will be passed on to readers of this article.

An edited version of Richard Bourke’s conversation with Paul Barclay is available to stream on the ABC Big Ideas website here. Information on volunteering with Reprieve Australia is available at Reprieve’s website. Although Centers like the LCAC do not have funds to meet the expenses of Reprieve Australia volunteers, the Julian Wagner Memorial Fund is raising funds to provide small bursaries for people who wish to volunteer but need financial support to achieve that aim.

Daniel Caruana is a barrister practicing at the Bar in Queensland. Prior to being called to the Bar, Daniel worked as a Senior Federal Prosecutor with the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions. He practises predominately in Criminal Law and regularly appears in court as defence counsel and prosecutor. Stephen Keim SC has been a barrister for 32 years. He practises from chambers in Brisbane and Hobart. Stephen was awarded the human rights medal in 2009 by the Australian Human Rights Commission. He is patron of Australian Against Capital Punishment and the Julian Wagner Memorial Fund Inc., both organisations dedicated to opposing the death penalty.