By Jack Holland
It was 15 years between calls for Joe Doherty’s New York lawyers, Mary Pike and Steve Somerstein. But it was worth the wait. The first call came on a Saturday morning, June 18, 1983. Pike was simply told that someone had been lifted, and needed an attorney. The second came on Thursday, Nov. 5, 1998, from Doherty’s mother to say that that "someone" — her son — was being freed on Friday, Nov. 6.
In the intervening years, the Joe Doherty case would consume their lives and bring them to the Supreme Court. But when the first call came, Pike and Somerstein freely admit they did not know much about Ireland and the "Troubles." Pike, however, recalls that the hunger strikes in 1981 had moved her as a "principled display of courage." It helped shape her reaction to Doherty when she met him. Federal agents had just arrested him at the bar where he worked in Manhattan.
"It was difficult talking to him — he had a pronounced Belfast brogue, but he was patient with us," Pike said of their first encounter on June 18 in the Metropolitan Correctional Center. "He was always straightforward — no unwillingness to answer questions — no obfuscation. He told us his story from the time he was interned at age 17. The facts of his life educated us."
It was, in a capsule, the story of Belfast and the Northern Ireland crisis as seen through the eyes of a working-class republican. It unfolded over hundreds of hours that Somerstein and Pike spent with Doherty as they prepared to fight the extradition warrant that the British had filed to bring him back to serve a life sentence for the killing of an undercover British officer during a Belfast gunbattle in 1980.
Neither lawyer had ever handled an extradition case before. Said Somerstein: "Our background was in the 1960s. We had a belief that the law could serve just ends. We were always interested in political cases and had taken cases of police brutality, cases involving anti-war activities, suits against the FBI." Most notably, Somerstein and Pike had brought a contempt case against Attorney General Griffin Bell. "We were just a couple of lawyers who were not afraid to stand up to government.," Somerstein added.
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It quickly became clear as they dealt with the Doherty case that "it was not about the rule of law but about politics and whose interests got served," according to Pike. Their argument that Doherty should not be extradited, because his crime fell under the political offense exception clause in the treaty between the US and Britain, prevailed in the courts, beginning with Judge Sprizzo’s ruling.
On Dec. 12 1984, Sprizzo found that the facts of the case "present the assertion of the political offense exception in its most classic form." It was a defining moment. However, the Reagan administration would not accept the court’s judgment, and engaged in a series of delaying motions. After loosing the extradition battle, Reagan drove a new extradition bill through the Senate, and started a long battle to deport Doherty, using tactics never before employed. Twice the attorney general blocked Doherty from being deported to the country of his chose — a intervention unique in U.S. legal history.
"It was an attack upon the independence of the judiciary," Somerstein said.
Along with their assistant, Lynn Stockhamer, they fought the government for nine years all the way to the Supreme Court, often depending on money raised through defense funds to help them meet their bills. There were times they could not pay the rent.
"The government had not prevailed on any substantive issues," Pike said. "The ruling by the Supreme Court was not going to clarify any area of law." It ruled that the attorney general, Richard Thornburgh, could deport Doherty without granting him a hearing. Doherty was deported in chains in February 1992.
That was the low point for the team.
The day Doherty was released, Pike, Somerstein and Stockhamer walked across City Hall Park to the MCC building and stood at Joe Doherty Corner, just underneath the tiny window through which the prisoner had gazed year after year. They thought: "He’s free."