In The Guardian on 18th September there were two striking personal stories. One chronicled an attempt in Ohio to execute a prisoner by lethal injection. It made the news because of the execution team’s inability to raise a vein in the prisoner’s body sufficient to insert the needle. Considerable pathos was added by the prisoner’s attempts, over a period of two hours, to assist by moving position and flexing his muscles. An act that led the prison governor to commend him for the consideration with which he treated those who had the task of killing him. The other article? I’ll come back to that in a moment.
I am sometimes asked about whether ‘I believe in Capital Punishment.’
Hanging was discontinued in Britain in 1964. Elsewhere judicial execution is still practiced. Amnesty International recorded that last year worldwide at least 2,390 people were executed and 8,864 were sentenced to death. I abhor every one of those sentences and every one of those deaths. I say that knowing that in many cases those condemned to die will have committed the most heinous acts including torture, murder and in some cases wholesale genocide. I say that also knowing that I have had a life in which none of my family has suffered in these terms and that I am in that sense critically distant from those whose lives have been destroyed under less fortunate circumstances. I am also aware that on this issue my views are out of line with a significant section of public opinion and in particular with those held by regular Conservative voters. Regardless of this, my conviction on this issue is absolute.
I find several arguments against Capital Punishment to be overwhelming. Firstly, the view that a society is significantly morally diminished when it gets into the business of executing people (even if after the most careful judicial process). At its most fundamental level I am not sure that it is truly possible to justify by logic alone any apparent moral absolute. These are the things you either feel and believe or you don’t. Like the notion that men should not be slaves or women discriminated against or little kids bullied. The rights and wrongs of these issues are determined by what you feel in your gut. And for my part, my stomach turned at the sight of Saddam Hussein being prodded off to the rope (after trial and conviction by the new Iraqi government). An event which for me simply diminished us all rather than having provided the moment when justice finally caught up with him and his wretched crimes.
Secondly, there must be a possibility that those facing trial for which guilt will lead to death will receive unduly lenient judgement. At the margins of judgement am I not likely to be sitting on the jury erring on the side of acquittal unless I am extraordinarily sure of guilt, especially if I am a jurist who believes that Capital Punishment is unconscionable? Even if I think the man facing me undeniably guilty do I not perhaps think about the kind of world he grew up in? Who did what to him in turn somewhere along the road? In short, do I not start to make allowances? And are those allowances not more likely to be considerable when I am faced with the terrible realisation that his life rests momentarily in my hands?
Thirdly, there is the tricky issue of manslaughter versus murder. Manslaughter (perhaps the battered wife who after years of incessant abuse plunges the bread knife into her husband after his final violent assault) will probably (depending upon the system of justice employed) be a non capital offence. For some cases it will be a difficult call between the two. It may only be killer and killed who knew what actually occurred. In these cases a skilled lawyer or poor lawyer might tip the verdict one way or the other. The risk of a poor defence lawyer is there in all cases of course but when it comes to capital crimes the consequences can be somewhat final. Which brings me to the second Guardian article and the obvious and most deadly nail in the whole miserable gallery of rope, syringe, shoot ‘em up and plug-in chair.
The other story? Yes you guessed it – bit of a judicial slip-up your honour. Sean Hodgson spends 27 years in prison after wrongful conviction for rape and murder. His innocence proved through DNA test on exhumed body. The final words of the statement of this man who spent the prime of his life incarcerated for something he never did were rather prosaic given the enormity of what had been done to him. He said simply, ‘you cannot undo what has already been done.’ Quite.