Renate and Merel were interviewed by Brandtpunt+ about their friendship with Clinton. Read the Dutch version here or read the English version below.
Friends for life, against the death penalty
Renate Bouwmeester and Merel Pontier know each other through a mutual friend. That is not uncommon in itself, but the shared friend who introduced the young legal advisors is the American death row inmate Clinton Young. Much can be learned from their special friendship. For example, not all women who write with someone on death row do so out of blind love or a fascination with dangerous men.
No one will deny that they exist: women who fall in love with a pen pal who is sentenced to death. The internet is full of stories about relationships between European women and America’s toughest criminals. Investigative journalist Linda Polman wrote a critically acclaimed book, Death Row Dollies, in which she follows several “dollies” over the years who interacted with prisoners awaiting a deadly injection in Texas.
“I have that book here somewhere,” Merel Pontier says on a Friday afternoon in her Rotterdam apartment, where she and Renate Bouwmeester held job interviews all morning for their fast-growing foundation, the Clinton Young Foundation. “I found it very interesting to read. Not because of the dollies, but because the book provides a unique insight into the legal system and the death penalty in Texas.”
Merel and Renate know the Texan prison that is the backdrop for Death Row Dollies very well. They have been there countless times, and they have sent thousands of letters over the years. Not love letters, but encouraging messages from the outside world from which their good friend Clinton has been separated for so long.
Clinton Young, or number 999447 of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, has been convicted of two murders that took place in 2001. He was eighteen then. This summer he will be thirty-six. He has seen his age double during the dragging fight to prove his innocence.
Renate and Merel support him in that fight. By being there for him, but also by thinking along with his lawyers, collecting donations and bringing his case to the attention of the media, at universities and in politics.
The women have been working together on helping Clinton for a few years now. Before that, they both corresponded individually with him. Renate sent him a letter for the first time in 2007. She studied law and wanted to do something to break the isolation of a death row prisoner. She came into contact with Clinton through the website writeaprisoner.com. “We have been friends for twelve years now.”
In 2014, Renate brings Clinton’s case to the attention of filmmaker Jessica Villerius, after having worked for a law firm in the United States for a while. “The injustice I saw there led me to write to Jessica.”
Jessica Villerius makes a documentary about Clinton. In Rotterdam, a law student who has just finished a 6 month internship at a law firm in the United States sees Code Red: The Death Penalty. Like Renate, she is fascinated by the American legal system and she’s an outspoken opponent of the death penalty. “The documentary grabbed me. I decided to send Clinton a letter, and he wrote back,” Merel says.
For Clinton, who has always maintained that he is innocent, the support of Merel and Renate means a lot. But here in the Netherlands, far away from the bizarre reality of life on death row, the women are not always appreciated for what they are: legal advisors, human rights activists, and perhaps most of all loyal friends.
There is a romantic cliché about women who correspond with those on death row. You want to end that cliché. Why?
Renate: “It is frustrating that you first have to get rid of stigmas before people take you seriously. We want to fight for Clinton, but we also have to fight against the prejudices that exist about women who write with a convicted person. We often have to defend ourselves first when we state who we are and what kind of work we do with the foundation. That stings, especially because we feel that we would not have to defend our work and our friendship with Clinton if we had been men.”
Merel: “It feels unfair.”
Renate: “Nowadays we have less problems with it, since there has been a documentary about Clinton and our foundation has become more well-known. People understand it better.”
Merel: “Maybe that has to do with the fact that there are strong indications for Clinton’s innocence. We support someone who is innocent and that’s something that is justified in our society. I think people would have had a lot less understanding if Clinton were guilty.”
Renate: “That shouldn’t really matter, though. For those sentenced to death, letters are the only form of contact with the outside world. It is essential that there are people who correspond with death row prisoners. We should not stigmatize that.”
You believe in Clinton’s innocence. Would you also write with him if he had committed those murders?
Renate: “Yes. We didn’t write Clinton because he’s innocent. We didn’t even know that when we sent him a letter for the first time. I knew almost nothing about him, except for some information I found online. His verdict, his mug shot, his criminal record. That’s it.”
Merel: “I had seen the documentary, so I had an impression of Clinton and his case. In the documentary, he explains why he could not have committed the murders, and why the statements of his three co-defendants are false. His conviction is based entirely on those statements. But in reality, much more went wrong in his conviction. It was when I started working for the foundation and gained access to legal documents that it became clear to me that Clinton didn’t have a fair trial at all.”
Renate: “Clinton deserves a new trial. We are fighting for that with the Clinton Young Foundation. But we also hope that with the foundation we can encourage people to send letters to other prisoners on death row.”
The fact that you are now fighting together for the human rights of American death row inmates is because Clinton introduced you to each other a few years ago. How did that go?
Merel: “In 2016 I decided to go to the United States for another six months, to do an internship at a law firm that assists those sentenced to death. When I told Clinton about it, he advised me to contact a Dutch legal advisor with whom he had been writing for a long time. She had done volunteer work at a law firm in New Orleans that focuses entirely on death penalty cases.”
Renate: “Ultimately, Merel also did an internship in New Orleans. She even lived in the house where I had also lived. It’s nice to have someone I can share my experiences with.”
You hadn’t known each other that long when something major happened: Clinton’s execution date was set.
Renate: “Yes. He was about to be executed on October 26, 2017. Merel and I then campaigned intensively for months. We wrote to the governor, submitted a request to the Dutch embassy and set up a campaign with Amnesty International.”
Merel: “It often happens that an execution is stayed just before the set date, so you keep on hoping for that until the last moment. But when we had not received any news two weeks before the execution date, we had to take into account that it was really going to happen. Renate and I then flew to the United States together, so we could see Clinton the week before his execution. You have to say goodbye, but you don’t know how to at all.”
Renate: “I also doubted very much whether I wanted to be present at the execution. Fortunately, we never had to make that choice. Clinton’s execution was stayed at the last minute.”
Those months must have been nerve-racking for Clinton. If a friend has a hard time, you want to be there for him. But how do you do that when that friend is on death row?
Merel: “We can mainly support him by writing letters. That is the only form of social contact he is allowed to have, apart from the contact with his lawyers and the two visiting hours he has per week.”
So giving him a quick call is not possible?
Merel: “No. In movies you sometimes see those prison phones where prisoners stand in line to call. On death row in Texas, those phones don’t exist. Death row prisoners serve their sentences in isolation. Clinton is in his cell for twenty-two hours a day. He only has a typewriter, a radio and a newspaper.”
Renate: “All of that was bought for him with collected money. Some death row prisoners, who have no outside support, have absolutely nothing in their cell.”
Merel: “The detention conditions on death row are extremely harmful. Psychologically it is torture. That is why it is so important that there are people who write with those sentenced to death.”
What do you write about with Clinton?
Renate: “Our correspondence is not confidential, so we never write about the case. That is simply not sensible, because our letters are being checked and can be used against Clinton. But otherwise we actually write about anything. The foundation, the campaigns, daily life.”
Merel: “I regularly write with Clinton about Supreme Court verdicts in death penalty cases. We both find it interesting to follow those verdicts. Then he writes: have you read that and that statement? And we discuss it. That’s nice.”
You have often visited him in prison. What is it like to be there?
Merel: “It remains bizarre to walk into that prison, I never get used to it. It is a sad place. Greeting Clinton is always strange. Clinton is still in handcuffs when he is brought to the visiting room. He is then placed on a chair on the other side of a glass wall, and only then are the guards loosening his chains. That is hard to see.”
Renate: “Especially the first time I visited him was intense. I had never been inside a prison before. Not even in a Dutch one.”
Merel: “No, neither had I.”
Do you think there will come a day when you will just visit Clinton at home and have a beer with him on his porch?
Merel: “The battle is not over yet, but I believe that day will come. You must remain hopeful.”
Renate: “That is our goal. Freedom for Clinton. There will be a hearing soon, during which a judge will look at the conflicting statements of Clinton’s co-defendants. We hope that the judge will rule that those statements were false and that they have negatively influenced Clinton’s trial. Then, we are one step closer to sitting in front of Clinton’s house, somewhere in America, as ordinary friends.”
You mean a lot to Clinton. Does he have great significance in your lives as well?
Renate: “Yes, absolutely. Thanks to Clinton, I realize that freedom cannot be taken for granted, that I have to get everything out of life.”
Merel: “Clinton is very important in my life. He is the reason that I started to focus on American death penalty cases within criminal law. I just quit my job to follow a second master program in Texas. I’m leaving in five weeks. After that, I intend to take the Bar Exam in Texas so that I can assist American death row prisoners as a defense attorney. I would never have done that without Clinton. He motivates me to pursue this dream. “
Want to learn more?
Jessica Villerius made a series of NPO documentaries about the story of Clinton Young. After Code Red: The Death Penalty in 2014, the documentaries Deal with Death (Innocent on Death Row) and The Last Chance appeared in 2017. These documentaries can be viewed on NPO Start, Amazon Prime or YouTube. Visit www.clintonyoungfoundation.com to stay up to date about Clinton’s case and the work that Renate Bouwmeester and Merel Pontier are doing with the Foundation.