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How Many is Too Many?
Member Name: Hishyeness
Date: 08/08/09, updated on 10/08/09 (416 review reads)
Advantages: None. It has no place in a civilised society.
Disadvantages: Legion. Too many to list.
On 13th July 1955, a fine summer's morning, Ruth Ellis, a 28 year old nightclub manageress convicted of murdering her lover, David Blakely, sat in the condemned cell at Holloway Prison with a priest and her guards as the clock approached nine o'clock. She was given a large tot of brandy to calm her nerves. Thirty seconds before the appointed hour, the state hangman, Albert Pierrepoint entered with his assistant, Royston Rickard, asked Ellis to stand and bound her hands behind her back with a leather strap. At the far end of the room, a wardrobe was wheeled away to reveal a previously concealed passage leading through to the execution chamber.
Ellis was marched through and positioned squarely on a chalk mark on the floor, her feet straddling the crack between the two large trapdoors of the gallows and the fatal noose dangling in front of her. As Rickard bound her legs together with a second leather strap, Pierrepoint swiftly removed a white hood from the breast pocket of his suit and placed it over Ellis' head.
The noose made of stretched and boiled hemp and sheathed with chamois leather was placed around her neck, and the simple knot secured under her left ear with a rubber washer to prevent it from slipping out of place. Pierrepoint stepped back, removed the cotter pin to release the handle of the fatal lever and took it in both hands. Rickard jumped off the trap, simultaneously shouting "clear!". These were the last words Ellis heard on this earth as Pierrepoint pulled the lever, the trap doors crashed open against their stops, and she plummeted through the trap.
The expertly placed noose broke her neck, severing the spinal cord and causing more or less instant death. The time from when Pierrepoint entered the condemned cell to the release of the fatal trap was under thirty seconds. Such was the brutal efficiency of the state mandated judicial killing of Ruth Ellis.
Over fifty years later this execution still haunts the British conscience. I won't go in to the particulars of the case here, but suffice it to say, this was a crime of passion and the result of sustained provocation and stress. Ellis was probably guilty of manslaughter, but she believed in "an eye for an eye" and felt she deserved to die for what she did. The judicial system effectively obliged by giving her a state-sponsored suicide. She was the last woman to hang in Great Britain.
The case was at least partly responsible for the root and branch examination of the use of capital punishment in this country, and eventually led to the retirement of Pierrepoint, who was deeply affected by the demands of his job and the Ellis execution in particular, and also to the removal of hanging from the statute books for most crimes other than treason by 1969. It was abolished altogether in 1988 when the UK became a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
I am a staunch opponent of capital punishment for two principal reasons: (a) I do not trust the power of the state to be exercised fairly, competently and without political influence; and (b) the execution of a single innocent person is unacceptable - the system has proved itself fallible on too many occasions to be relied upon.
THE ARBITRARY & INDISCRIMINATE POWER OF STATE
The only western country of note to still put its citizens to death - and with alarming regularity - is the United States of America, where the Federal Government, US Military and 38 of the 50 States still have the death penalty on their books. Of these, Texas has the busiest execution chambers, having killed 126 convicts by lethal injection in the last 5 years alone.
The pace of these executions only slowed to allow for issues around lethal injection (relating to the 8th Amendment to the US Constitution prohibiting "cruel and unusual punishment") to be considered by the US Supreme Court in 2008. The court upheld lethal injection as a valid method of execution and several states have since recommenced their schedule of executions.
Putting aside the merits of the individual cases, the final arbiter - and the last resort of any prisoner is the Governor of the State in question. In addition, District Attorneys who prosecute cases and the Judges who preside over trials are political appointees, all with vested interests in keeping their electorate happy to ensure another polling day payday. Politicians who oppose the death penalty or exercise their right of pardon are labelled "soft on crime" regardless of the merits of an individual case. This does not promote the fair use of the state's power in killing.
In the UK, before abolition, the system was arguably fairer, as lawyers and judges had no particular vested interest in keeping the public on-side. However, there were two major flaws in the system:
(a) it was indiscriminate - death by hanging was the mandatory sentence for murder, regardless of whether there were exceptional excusing or aggravating circumstances - i.e. Ruth Ellis was just as likely to be executed as a serial killer; and
(b) the time from conviction to execution was an average of ninety (90) days, leaving very little time for a sensible appeals process or the introduction of mitigating evidence. As in the USA, the final appeal is to the politically motivated Home Secretary.
How many is too many? If one in a hundred executed was innocent, is a 1% failure rate acceptable? What if it's one in a thousand, does 0.01% sound any better? What if that one person was your daughter, your wife, or you? Would it be acceptable then? This is not as far fetched as it seems.
In 1950, Timothy Evans was hanged for crimes committed by his lodger, John Reginald Christie in the notorious 10 Rillington Place murders. In 1953, Derek Bentley, he who uttered the infamous "Let him have it" - was executed for the killing of PC Sidney Miles despite the fact that he was mentally retarded, he didn't actually fire the gun (his accomplice, Christopher Craig pulled the trigger) and he was actually under arrest and restrained at the time. Not exactly the UK judicial system's finest hour.
Timothy Evans was granted a posthumous free pardon in 1966. Mahmood Hussein Mattan, convicted in 1953 and was the last hanged in Wales, had his conviction quashed in 1998. George Kelly, hanged in Liverpool in 1950, had his conviction overturned by the Court of Appeal in June 2003.
Derek Bentley's family had to wait forty-five years - until 1998 - for his conviction to be set aside. Chillingly, the appeal trial judge, Lord Chief Justice Lord Bingham, remarked that the original trial judge, Lord Goddard, had denied Bentley "the fair trial which is the birthright of every British citizen."
This litany of miscarriages of justice is not confined to the UK. In 2002, Ray Krone became the 100th person in the United States to be sentenced to death and subsequently exonerated since the moratorium on capital punishment was lifted by the US Supreme Court in 1973.
There are many other issues which inform the capital punishment debate - an eye for an eye, as a deterrent, the cost of life sentences to the tax payer, religious faith grounds, and many others - but I don't intend to expound on these. I did not intend this to be a comprehensive argument against the use of the death penalty. It is simply a statement on the two issues at the heart of my position that it should be abolished.
Our judicial system, and those in major developed nations, is amongst the best in the world, however, best does not mean perfect. As long as there is the risk of executing even one person who does not deserve it, and as long as the system is subject to political influence and/or abuse, then it is simply not safe to allow the state to put people to death.
Once sentence is carried out, there is no turning back. The compensation paid to the families of those exonerated after execution does not restore fathers to sons and wives to husbands. It is final and irreversible. In my view, it has no place in a civilised society. Fortunately, the UK saw the light in the late 60's, and our assignation to the ECHR means that there is no realistic prospect for capital punishment to be re-introduced in this country.
The tragedy of Ruth Ellis did not end on the gallows. Her husband, George Ellis succumbed to alcoholism and took his own life in 1958. Her son, who was eleven when she was executed, was badly affected, and having suffered various mental health problems, also killed himself in 1982.
After extensive renovations to Holloway Prison in the seventies, the bodies of all executed inmates were exhumed and reburied elsewhere. Ellis was re-buried at St Mary's Church in Amersham, Buckinghamshire. Her grave is now overgrown and neglected - and her family also collateral damage crushed under the brutal machinery of the State.
So I ask. How many is too many?
© Hishyeness 2009
Summary: The system is flawed and subject to abuse and self-interest.