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A British killer brought me to America... but love of my life kept me there

Day two: Acclaimed Death Row lawyer Gary Proctor on grim case that changed the course of his life

By Claire McNeilly

Published 16/06/2016

Gary and Theresa Proctor with their twins Sammy and Louie
Gary and Theresa Proctor with their twins Sammy and Louie
Gary and Theresa Proctor
Gary Proctor in court
Briton Tracy Housel, who was executed in Georgia
Gary outside court in Baltimore in the States

Tracy Housel was a reprehensible human being, responsible for a catalogue of crimes so despicable they cannot be detailed in a family newspaper. But this vile man was eventually caught and sentenced to death for raping a woman, strangling her and beating her face to a pulp. After 16 years on Death Row in Georgia, he was executed by lethal injection.

On his way to his date with the needle, he had a final meal of steak, baked potato and corn, followed by ice cream and a chocolate milkshake. He smiled and winked at the warden, recited verses from the Old and New Testaments and - finally - apologised to the family of Jean Drew, his last victim.

His execution was witnessed by one of his lawyers - Jordanstown man Gary Proctor, who was left seething with rage afterwards. Not by what Housel had done, but by the fact that he hadn't been spared by a system the former Queen's University law student spends his life railing against.

It was Housel - technically a British citizen - who brought Proctor to the United States in the first place. His first job wasn't even as a lawyer - after graduating in 1995 he went to work for the then Price Waterhouse in London and became a chartered accountant.

Those skills, allied to his law degree, stood him in good stead in 1998 when he landed a job working in corporate finance in Bermuda - "playing with rich people's money", as he describes it.

The twist of fate that led him to spend most of the last two decades defending convicted murderers occurred during that three-year spell in the north Atlantic tax haven.

"Housel was born in Bermuda - a British oversees territory - and having a hard time establishing his British citizenship, which would have helped his case," recalls Gary.

"The well-known civil rights campaigner Clive Stafford Smith had taken an interest, and someone who knew I was living out there suggested I might be able to help.

"I then met with Housel's lawyers, and that's how it all started."

Housel's defence team, which by this time included Gary, argued that the 43-year-old had been denied access to a British consul after his arrest, was poorly represented at the original trial, and should never have been advised to plead guilty because he suffered from a psychotic brain disorder.

But despite international pleas for clemency, he was put to death in March 2002.

Baltimore-based Gary, who refuses to put his emotions to one side when dealing with clients, said he was "in a rage for weeks" after the execution, adding: "That particular case can still wake me up in the middle of the night."

He explained its outcome enraged him because, like so many others, his client was failed "by the system".

"It's not about the worst offenders, it's about the worst lawyers, said the former Whiteabbey Primary pupil.

"Most of the cases I see are people who are already on Death Dow. They were abjectly failed."

The father-of-twins said he watched Housel die "because he asked me to", but he doesn't believe his clients are inherently wicked.

"There are degrees of irrationality, there are degrees of mental illness - I don't think evil exists," he explained.

"Every state has their own stupid rules, and Georgia's stupid rule is that only members of the legal team can be present. I was the only one available at that moment, so I got to go to the execution."

"The worst thing about it is not the actual execution - although that is horrific - it's the pomp and ceremony.

"There's the finger buffet for the Press. They're here for you to kill a healthy man, you know - spare me the finger buffet.

"It's the way the inmate is propped up at an angle so everyone gets a good look at his final breath.

"It's the way they have a blanket over him, so you can't see the lethal syringe in him. It's a grim, macabre, revolting, staged spectacle."

Within a year of arriving in America, Gary met and married social worker Theresa, his future wife and the mother of the couple's young twin boys, Sammy and Louie, after falling in "love at first sight".

At the time, Theresa, now 44, was working for Sister Helen Prejean, the Catholic nun and campaigner whose best-selling book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty, led to a Hollywood movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

"I was representing people who Helen would also have been involved with regarding their spiritual counselling," he explained.

Family helps the 43-year-old high-flier take his mind off work - and then there's the annual visit home, during which he "goes on a little golf trip" with pals from Queen's.

"I used to be a serious motorbike person, but I've got two seven-year-olds so it leaves the garage about four days a year now," Gary said.

He misses friends and family - parents Rita and George, who are both in their 70s and owned Pet World in Newtownabbey before retirement, and his 42-year-old sister Helen, a social worker.

But he mentions other "little things" from home.

"Maud's ice cream... the proximity of everything; here I average 2,000 miles a month in my car," Gary told the Belfast Telegraph. "TV - American telly is terrible and has way too many adverts."

And he admits he holds "lots of special memories" dear.

"I had a great childhood in Northern Ireland," he said. "Playing rugby on Saturday morning, football on Saturday afternoon and cricket on Sunday.

"Listening to Van Morrison in the car with my grandfather while driving to Nutt's Corner market.

"Camping in Newcastle, school ski trips, student discos at Queen's."

Speaking of Queen's University, he may recommend his alma matter to his boys in years to come.

"It would be good for them to live and study abroad," Gary added. "Even as a foreign student, it's a lot cheaper than university in the States.

The lawyer has no immediate plans to return to these shores permanently because, for him, there is still so much to achieve in America.

And he believes the death penalty - which remains an option in 31 states - will be abolished before he reaches retirement age.

"It's not far away - less than 20 years would be my guess," he said."Back when the constitution was written it was okay to flog people and tar and feather them, but under the evolving standards of decency that's not okay any more.

"So, 10 or 12 years ago, we said that you can't execute the mentally disabled, and a few years later we said you can't execute people who were juveniles at the time.

"Very soon the authorities are going to say that you can't execute people who have a really serious mental illness. Last year, there were only three states that killed more than one person.

"Public opinion is still in favour of it, but it has dropped by five or six percentage points.

"The young, the people who are turning 18, think it's a barbaric anathema."

Gary is convinced that, in any case, the death penalty isn't, and never was, a genuine deterrent.

"The states with the highest homicide rates are the same ones that execute the most prolifically - Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Missouri," he explained.

"On the other hand, the places with the lowest homicide rate - like Wisconsin - haven't executed anyone in 120 years."

It's no surprise that Gary thinks Death Row is one of the most miserable places imaginable.

"It's 23 hours of being in your cell," he said. "You have one hour a day to accomplish everything - to shower, exercise, drop off your letters, talk to other people - and the rest of the time you're locked in.

"In some places you never touch another human being. You talk to your lawyer through a telephone, and when you're out of your cell everyone else is in theirs.

"Literally, there are people that have not touched another human being for 10 or 15 years."

He added: "It's horrific - and who wants to know the exact date they're going to die?

"For most of us it's probably a good thing that we don't know when that day is coming.

"You can forget your wife's birthday or your wedding anniversary, but you never forget the date a client was executed because they set these things far enough in advance.

"It's like there's 30 days left, December 15, there's 29 days left, we're working to December 15, there's 28 days left, we have to file in the Supreme Court, there's 27 days left...

"It's all of that pressure, it's all that of narrowing of the funnel as you slowly move towards the final end of your times."

Gary believes that dealing with serious offenders on a daily basis has taught him that the condemned men - and women - are, essentially, not that different to the rest of us.

"They really aren't," he said. "If you were born into their life and they were born into yours, they would probably be interviewing you today. That's the truth."

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