On June 12th 2001, at midnight (NZ time) Timothy McVeigh was executed by lethal injection, at Terre Haute Indiana. His execution had been delayed for a month, because the FBI had found over 3000 pages of evidence which they had failed to turn over to McVeigh's defence. This event has brought the subject of capital punishment back to public attention, though it is never very far away.
Execution was abolished in Britain in 1964. One of the seminal events bringing this about was the conviction of John Reginald Christie for the murder of women and girls whose bodies were found in his house. The trouble was, Timothy Evans, a tenant of Christie's, had already been hanged for the murder of two of them, his wife and daughter. Evans, thought to be intellectually disabled, was unable to convey his innocence, which was later proved. One Timothy Evans would be bad enough, but such things as the Innocence Project show he is not alone.
The Innocence Project began in 1991 as a clinic for students of New York's Yeshiva University school of law. Since 1992, 70 prisoners across the United States have been freed, 8 of whom were on Death Row.
This casts serious doubt on the justice of execution.
However, that is not the only argument against capital punishment. It is wrong and an injustice even for the guilty.
It is estimated that in the United States, 63% of the public are in favour of the death penalty (down from 80% in 1994.) There is growing vociferous support for execution in New Zealand. In 1998, a NZ Herald Digipoll found in excess of 70% of respondents wanted to see the death penalty reintroduced.
Texas, the state formerly governed by George W Bush, has the highest level of executions in any state, 36 in 1997 alone. McVeigh looked in vain for clemency from this particular President...
The death penalty is not, as some believe, a deterrent to murder. Most murders are 'intimate' crimes, committed in passion and rage. A murderer does not stop and think about the penalty he or she may face.
Murders committed during the commission of another crime or for profit are a minority, and murderers of this type don't believe they will be caught. Like Leopold and Loeb in the 1920s, they believe they are too clever to be detected. That leaves vengeance as a rationale for the death penalty. Relatives of victims believe that the death of the perpetrator will bring them 'closure'. This is rarely, if ever the case.
The death penalty is barbarism. It has been called 'state sanctioned murder' and this can never be right! In October 1997, the Catholic Bishops in the United States called for an end to the death penalty in Texas. They said that Texas was 'usurping the sovereign dominion of God over human life' and thereby contributing to a 'climate of violence'. It was not a deterrent to crime, had racist overtones and cost millions of dollars in appeals and legal fees.
The death penalty has a hardening effect on society, and on those who carry it out. A reporter who witnessed the last Federal execution 30 years ago, was horrified by the experience. People who say, without experience, that they would gladly witness or participate in an execution may find they are very wrong if ever granted their wish.
In June 1994, David Lawson, 38, was executed at Raleigh Central Prison in North Carolina. He screamed as he was strapped into the chair in the gas chamber and he took seven minutes of gasping and suffocating, to die. TV talkshow host Phil Donahue failed to get permission to televise the event. He felt that those who support capital punishment may find their opinion changing if they saw such a thing. In March 1997, Pedro Medina was electrocuted in Florida. Blue and orange sparks shot from the mask covering his head, burning for 10 seconds as smoke filled the chamber. Witnessing scenes like these hardens those who are required to carry out the 'peoples' will', forcing their fellow men (and some women) to go to their public and agonising deaths.
There are those who say that having inflicted similar fates on their victims, that these killers deserve their fates. By no means! There are those executed, who killed no one, and each case is different. The TV movie serial killer who slays his victims whilst cackling evilly is a fictional pastiche. In reality, such killers are rare and of doubtful legal competency.
In America there is a move to lethal injection. This requires participation of medical personnel to set up IV lines, and operate the 'machine' of which its inventor is so weirdly proud. It is shocking that doctors allow themselves to take part in such a grisly drama. What does his/her role in execution do to a medical professional?
Perhaps it is significant that the victim of 'lethal injection' meets his or her end on a cruciform table.
Recommended reading: The Execution Protocol by Stephen Trombley.