The killing

OK, having tried to comment on this via Twitter and been defeated by the 140-character limit and nitpickers, I’ll have another, more considered go here. The United States of America, a country that still purports to “export democracy” around the world, upholds the death penalty in all but 14 of its 5o states, with four in a constitutional grey area, where it hasn’t been abolished but has not actually been used since 1976. (From reading up on it today, I discover that New York and Masachusetts have no death row, but capital punishment is “retained in law.”) Last year, there were 46 executions in America, 44 by lethal injection, one by electric chair and, I kid you not, one by firing squad in Utah. That’s down from a score of 52 in 2009, and 85 in 2000. The trend seems to be away from killing people for killing other people, but it’s still very much in the nation’s judicial portfolio. A poll conducted at the end of last year by Lake Research Partners puts public opinion very much against it, with 61% of those US voters polled opting for an alternative to death. Full stats here.

The fact remains, on Wednesday night, at the same allotted hour, in two different states, two different men were given a similar lethal injection. I am not the first to spot this. There is a very good, clear comparison on the Huffington Post by Trymaine Lee, which you may care to read. But I’ll precis: Troy Davis, 42, was executed in Butts County, Georgia, for killing a policeman, Mark MacPhail, in Savannah, in 1989. Laurence Russell Brewer, 44, was executed in Jasper, East Texas, for killing James Byrd Jr in the same town, in 1998.

Amnesty International and the NAACP backed the campaign to give Davis a new hearing. He had always protested his innocence, a number of witnesses apparently withdrew their testimony, and the gun with which Davis was charged with shooting MacPhail was never found. His death was a blow to those who had tried to so hard to see justice done. If the state of Georgia had no death penalty, he would still be in prison, but he would be alive, and a retrial might still be possible. Clearly, I have no more idea than you do whether or not he did it. It feels wrong, which is why I err on the side of caution before having someone killed.

The Byrd case is entirely different. He was killed, horrifically – and I won’t go into detail, but it’s all on the record if you can stomach it – by three men, two of whom were sentenced to death – Brewer and John William King, both self-proclaimed white supremacists (King has yet to be executed) – and a third, Shawn Allen Berry, against whom insufficient evidence could be found, and who said the other two did it, and who is in protective custody, serving life. (So, while Davis was black and his victim white; here, it was the other way around.) Brewer never denied committing the crime, or his hateful reasons for doing it, and indeed, before he died, he claimed he had no regrets and would do it again. He seems to be something of a monster.

In the second case, the only doubt surrounds the extent, and motivation, of Berry’s involvement. (All three were in the same pick-up truck.) In the Davis case, it seems far less clear cut. Either way, and here’s where I make my statement: I don’t believe that killing Davis or Brewer is right.

I am currently reading Margaret Thatcher’s memoir The Path To Power, as I’ve mentioned before, and we’re in 1968, she’s a Conservative MP in opposition and on the shadow cabinet, and she’s just voted to lift the suspension of the death penalty in England, Wales and Scotland. (It was suspended here in the year of my birth and voted on every year in Parliament until 1969 when it was made permanent.) I’m not surprised, of course, to read that one of this country’s most right-wing politicians would vote in favour of the state-sanctioned murder of individuals, but it brings it all closer to home. That’s only 40 years ago, and in fact, the death penalty remained, legally, until 1998 for the exciting sounding crimes of treason and piracy. But the European Convention on Human Rights stopped all that nonsense and for as long as this country is a member of the Council of Europe, we can’t kill anybody. Except “in times of war or imminent threat of war”. You can chew that over among yourselves.

My argument is an absolutist one, and it’s one that’s not political, just instinctive. If we are to hold up willful murder against an unwilling victim as a crime, which we should, then how are we, as a society, to maintain our moral superiority if we, as a society, endorse the murder of murderers? I know there are still people in this country who would “bring back hanging” for murderers, or at least, those murderers who seem more despicable for, say, murdering children, or for torturing and then murdering. It’s easy and understandable to get all Old Testament in the heat of the moment, but take a breath and first ask yourself: would you administer the injection, or even stand and watch the person’s life ebb away? OK, some hardened pro-death lobbyists would say, yes I would. Fair enough, you have the courage of your convictions. But I would argue that if you take this to its logical conclusion, murder can no longer be a crime if murder is state-sanctioned. And then murderers would not be criminals.

I used the caveat “against an unwilling victim” earlier so as to skilfully remove the equally thorny issue of assisted suicide from this debate. Again, discuss that among yourselves, but if someone wants to die and convinces a loved one to administer a lethal dose or turn off a machine, it’s something other than straightforward murder.

I think I’m writing this down because under the BBC News website story about Troy Davis, which rightly caused emotions to run high, somebody had posted something about the US having the “guts” the rid the streets of its “vermin.” This struck me as inappropriate, and baffling. Maybe it’s been removed by a moderator by now, but hey, free speech and all that. It made me angry that anybody could be so bloodthirsty and driven by vengeance, so I Tweeted about it and got in a mess. I described it in a Tweet as a “lovely comment” and someone actually asked me if I was being sarcastic or not.

I hope it’s clear where I’m coming from now anyway. When two men are executed for committing – or being convicted of committing – such very different crimes, it puts a strain on anyone’s liberal certainties. But that’s where I got to.

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9 thoughts on “The killing

  1. “If we are to hold up willful murder against an unwilling victim as a crime, which we should, then how are we, as a society, to maintain our moral superiority if we, as a society, endorse the murder of murderers?”

    On a non-moral (amoral?) note I can’t endorse capital punishment simply because of the potential for an inaccurate verdict such as that of Timothy Evans for the crimes of Christie.

  2. I was only nine in 1979 and I confess most of my knowledge of what was going on back then came through my mum, who, it’s safe to say, didn’t want Thatcher to win. So I may be wrong but I’ve always been under the impression that Thatcher *hinted* in the run-up to that election that capital punishment might just be on the agenda if she won. Thankfully it disappeared off her agenda after that, if it was ever on it. But let’s face it, if she’d really wanted to bring back hanging, she had plenty of opportunity to do something about it.

  3. dave,

    She didn’t waste any time before trying.

    On 19th July 1979 a motion to reintroduce capital punishment was defeated by 116 votes. I remember, because I was in the public gallery at the time.

    That week I was on a school trip to London and was lucky enough to have been shown round the House of Commons by Bob Cryer (then MP for Keighley). The not-so-lucky half of our party were given the tour by John Watson (MP for Skipton).

    Bob Cryer got us back in, in the evening, for the vote. I still have the cutting from the next day’s Yorkshire Post…

    Girlonatrain

  4. While I agree 100% with your argument against the death penalty, just a note about America and ‘promoting democracy’. Americans would argue that they have the death penalty BECAUSE they are a democracy (i.e. the majority of voters want it), and the liberal states of Europe don’t because they are not truly democratic, i.e. the elected representatives willfully do not reflect the will of the people. Where the hypocracy lies is in the Christian right, who vehemently oppose abortion, but support the death penalty…though they do argue that it’s a case of measuring the innocent against the guilty.

    • Fair point, Ben. I guess I was striving for a point about the hypocrisy of promoting, shall we say, “freedom” around the world, while executing its own citizens. Although I guess with states-within-a-state you can have different laws in different parts of the country, and a majority of people being against it nationally does not mean a majority against it locally. There’s the difference between the US and Europe. In the States, they elect the fire chief, right? Here, we only get to elect our politicians, and the first-past-the-post system is the bit that skews actual public opinion. A party can rule the country with a tiny mandate.

  5. Good blog, Andrew. I feel much the same way. A friend of mine provided a good quote from Albert Camus yesterday:

    ‎”What then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared? For there to be an equivalence, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal, who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him, and who from that moment onward had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.”

  6. *reply to Andrew*
    Depends on the locality, but most senior government/bureaucratic posts are elected. On a trivial level, when I get fined $180 for having the grass in my front lawn too long (as happened this summer), that punishment seems an imposition on my personal freedom to my English friends (my home is my castle), but to my American friends that is purely a demonstration of liberty and local democracy (I violated a local ordinance voted on by the majority of home owners). These are differences that often makes America hard to understand for non-Americans.

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