If you have ever wondered from where the death-row lawyer Clive Stafford Smith gets his intransigent, crusading spirit, this vivid, inquiring memoir provides much of the evidence. It is set up as a book not about its author but about the lives of two very different men who helped to define him. The first is Stafford Smith’s father, Dick, a wildly volatile man with bipolar disorder, who squandered the family fortune and blamed everyone but himself. The second is Larry Lonchar, an inmate in Georgia State Prison facing a capital sentence, one of the many men for whom Stafford Smith has acted as advocate and sometime saviour in the past 40 years. The lawyer’s examination of these two doomed lives, and his own role in them, expands into a compulsive personal investigation into the limits of empathy, and the proper balance of responsibility and retribution toward the destructive actions of men not in their best minds.
Dick Stafford Smith, whose death in 2007 first prompted this book, was in some ways the blueprint for all of the prisoners lost in the American justice system, for whom his son petitioned mercy: a man burdened with a temperamental makeup entirely unsuited to the circumstances of his adult life. Haunted by his failure to fathom his father, still less to help him, Stafford Smith explores how he went in search of the most extreme kinds of “save-able” surrogates elsewhere. Not for nothing did he call his charity Reprieve.
At 18, Stafford Smith fled to university in the US – and you don’t blame him for trying to escape home as soon as he could. His voyage around his father is a portrait drawn in impossible violent extremes. Dick Stafford Smith inherited the oldest horse-racing stud in England – Cheveley Park Stud – from his father (whose own inheritance, it emerges, derived from a clandestine gay relationship with Cheveley’s previous owner). With his alternating moods of black despair and insomniac megalomania, Dick Stafford Smith could hardly have fallen into a less suitable role. Staking everything on risky stallions, and ever more grandiose plans and schemes, his behaviour became increasingly erratic. Stafford Smith first realised the extent of it when, aged seven, his father called him into his study and thrust £200 into his hand – about “66 years worth of pocket money”, he later recalls calculating – before informing him that from now on he was on his own, and needed to look for a place to rent. Later, after he is dispatched to boarding school, he receives a letter from his father, one of many wild and whirling missives, in which he and his brother – in between catalogues of their failings as sons and human beings – are instructed to urgently find £30,000 (about £500,000 in today’s money) in order to buy out their aunt’s interest in the stud.
Stafford Smith finds useful ways to parallel this kind of behaviour with the choices that have led, in far less privileged circumstances, to death row. Larry Lonchar was convicted of three murders in a botched extortion plot in 1987. In investigating his biography in search of mitigation for these crimes, Stafford Smith unearthed a catalogue of neglect and abuse in Lonchar’s childhood that led him to inescapable depression and gambling addiction, and a desire to seek certainty in incarceration for an escalating series of crimes. The logical conclusion of this journey, it becomes clear to Stafford Smith, was Lonchar’s determination to take responsibility for murders there was reason to believe he did not commit, in order for the state to take his life: suicide by electric chair. It is a measure of the lawyer’s messianic faith in the sanctity of life at all costs that he defers this outcome over eight long years.
To begin with, the comparison between the life of his father and Lonchar may seem strained. Stafford Smith traces the progression of his father’s mania, after his estrangement from all of his family, in the cache of thousands of letters he left behind – sent to bishops and politicians as well as to his ex-wives and children. Despite his loneliness and paranoia, his cruelties and rudeness, Dick Stafford Smith’s “crimes” are of a different order of magnitude to Lonchar’s. As the book progresses, however, I found myself increasingly persuaded of the principles that Stafford Smith tries to establish: that forms of madness represent not deviations from “normality” but a spectrum on which we all live; that the more desperate a person’s material circumstances, the more likely it is that “antisocial personality disorders” will result in devastating outcomes. The question then becomes: how do we understand those actions and judge them?
There are biographical details that link his two subjects’ history of trauma – childhood accidents that leave them in comas, likely PTSD as a result of proximity to violence (Dick Stafford Smith served in the RAF in Italy as a navigator during the war; Lonchar witnessed almost daily acts of brutal domestic violence). The thread that knits these stories, however, is the author’s increasing anxiety about his own psychological makeup; those characteristics he routinely channels into 20-hour days, driving insanely between appeal courts and prisons in the pursuit of clemency, coming up with ever-crazier strategies to get stays of execution. His father calls him “Chip”, as in “off the old block”. He too is scarred by childhood. “I send you away to school,” his father tells him, “because I don’t have the courage to beat you myself.” One result is that “by the age of 12 I didn’t do emotion any more”.
In unpicking this history within himself, in what is a properly soul-searching book, Stafford Smith finds useful ways to ask the hardest of questions about crime and punishment. If we follow him in trying to face those questions, he argues, “We might even begin to treat people we don’t know in the same way we would treat those we love”.
• The Far Side of the Moon: Trials of My Father by Clive Stafford Smith is published by Harvill Secker (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply