A backward system of justice

The US is supposed to have barred execution for the mentally retarded. So why is Howard Neal still o

Howard Neal is on death row in Mississippi. He has been there for more than a quarter of a century. He was sentenced to death for the 1981 murder of his niece Amanda Joy Neal (13), plus given a life sentence for the murder of his half-brother Bobby Neal. He was also accused of the murder of Melanie Polk (14), but not prosecuted for it. The only evidence linking Howard to the crimes was a confession, allegedly made to a policeman after two full days of interrogation without a lawyer present. The statement, later recited by the police in court, was neither recorded nor signed, nor was it even written down.

Howard suffers from what Americans call "mental retardation". His age - he is now 53 - has nearly caught up with his IQ, which is 54. This puts him in the bottom 0.1 per cent of the population, and translates very roughly to the mental age of an eight-year-old. But an average child of that age would be able to read much better than Howard ever will, and would not be trapped in an adult's prison cell.

Howard's mother had 11 children. Many of them were taken from her by the state and adopted by other families, but from the age of nine to 16 Howard was sent to a state institution for the mentally retarded, where he was brutalised by staff and fellow inmates. He was then transferred to the Mississippi State Hospital for the mentally ill, where the abuse continued.

According to one study, as many as 44 mentally retarded men have been executed in America since the country's reinstitution of the death penalty in the 1970s. I have known some of them, and their limitations. The state of Georgia gave Jerome Bowden an intelligence test and told him that if he did badly at it he would be spared; he tried hard and died in the electric chair.

In theory, the US Supreme Court barred the death penalty for the mentally retarded in 2002. Five years on, Howard remains on death row, and the prosecution is still fighting for the right to inject a lethal poison into his veins. The very same court banned racial segregation in 1954, but pronouncements from Washington sometimes take years to filter through to Mississippi. Nearly three decades on, the water fountains in the courthouse at the time of Howard's trial were still tagged "White" and "Colored".

You can get some insight into Howard's world through his naive drawings. One picture shows a child crying at the back of a class - Howard's lasting memory of school. Another depicts police putting a gun in Howard's mouth, although the weapon is identified as a "Gug". In a third, your eyes are drawn to the tears streaming down Howard's face as he is strapped down to be executed - the future that the state of Mississippi has in store for him.

As part of a Lent festival, Reprieve will present a theatrical monologue about Howard's life, This Is a True Story, at the Bridewell Theatre in London from 26 March 2007. The Australians Tom Wright and Nicholas Harrington created the piece and are donating their time to bring it back to London. Tom Wright plays Howard: "I got arrest in 1981. I got the death sentenced in 1982. It take a life to go through court. I know a story like this is hard to believe. I wanted someone to know my side of the story. I don't know if state is going to kill me or not."

Please come along to the performance and spend an hour in Howard's world. Or drop him a postcard. He likes ones with animals on them, especially elephants. Then he'll know that someone - he will not be sure where - gives a damn.

For more information on how to write to Howard Neal or for tickets to "This Is a True Story", call Reprieve or visit its website

Clive Stafford Smith is the legal director of Reprieve, a UK charity fighting for the lives of people facing the death penalty and other human-rights abuses. He represents 36 of the prisoners in Guantanamo. He writes this column monthly. Contact Reprieve at PO Box 52742, London EC4P 4WS. Tel: 020 7353 4640 or http://www.reprieve.org.uk