Those of us who are totally opposed to the death penalty, in all circumstances, happen to be in a significant minority. Sometimes the extent to which we’re outnumbered surprises me, but then there is something alluring about capital punishment, a curious cocktail of violence, death and retribution, that goes a long way towards explaining its popularity beyond the stock argument that ‘a life for a life’ is a fair enough trade-off. I’ll explore this area of morbid fascination in a bit more depth tomorrow.
I’ve been asked more than once if I’d change my mind about this in the event that the justice system became perfect overnight, that only the truly guilty found themselves condemned to the chair, gas chamber or whatever. The answer is no, for there is something more fundamental at work here. While the horrors of serial killers and their crimes cause me to empathise with the victims’ loved ones like most, there is a significant line that allowing the death penalty crosses – one that very few give serious consideration.
To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, we the people delegate an extension of our rights and freedoms to the state, in order that they can work on our behalf. The relationship between state and citizen is one based on consent, with the individual as the master and government as servant, not the other way around. We cannot give the state powers that we do not have ourselves, so the only basis on which the death penalty can be accepted is that of the state being the boss, lording it over the rest of us.
With one or two notable exceptions, such as the United States, you’ll find that most countries which both have and actually carry out death sentences do not have a written constitution, bill of rights, certain freedoms enshrined in law or a representative electoral system. This is no coincidence, as the existence or otherwise of capital punishment usually serves as some sort of indicator towards the nature and very fabric of a nation.
Some will read this and dismiss it as high-minded bollocks, pseudo-philosophy or whatever. That’s entirely up to you, and if I’m wasting my time then it’s probably worth exploring some of the more ‘practical’ questions around capital punishment. Many of you will be familiar with the cases of Timothy Evans and Johnny Frank Garrett, both of whom were sentenced to death, and those of Stefan Kizsko and the Guildford Four (of whom Gerry Conlon was one), who were, thank god, spared from the ultimate form of ‘justice’ after its abolition.
All were innocent, although it would be interesting to ask if we would ever have known had they all been executed. Evans’ innocence was established only by the presence of a serial killer, John Christie, at 10 Rillington Place, who confessed to killing Evans’ wife a few years after the wrongly convicted man had perished. The illusion of Garrett’s ‘guilt’ was basically destroyed when a man convicted of a very similar crime in the same neck of the woods admitted he had also ‘raped and killed a nun one time’.
There is a fascinating documentary about the Garrett case here. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it’s worth watching.
Of course, they were both dead by the time the truth came to light, but a posthumous pardon will make it all better, yeah?
Meanwhile, both Conlon and Kizsko owed the establishment of their innocence to the very fact that they were kept alive. Charlotte Kizsko’s relentless and determined pursuit of the truth is to be greatly admired, and it’s doubtful whether she could have sustained the string of knockbacks dished out for over a decade by the legal system without the carrot of actually seeing her son released. Conlon owed his release to the diligent and skillful work of a legal team that by definition could never have been hired or directed by a corpse.
The reality is that mistakes are made, some investigators cut corners in their work just as in any other profession and until the end of time, there will always be people prepared to stand up in court and tell direct lies. How often does this happen? And how often can we accept it happening as ‘a reasonable margin of error’ for the supposed greater good that capital punishment represents?
I’ll answer those questions and more in part two – until then, take care.