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14May

The Far Side of the Moon by Clive Stafford Smith review – a death row lawyer’s soul-searching memoir

By telling the life stories of his bipolar father and a convicted murderer he tried to save from the electric chair, Stafford Smith raises urgent moral questions about behaviour and justice

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.

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