Brian Edwards Media

Death Out Of Season

 

Photo: Ursula Abresch

Photo: Ursula Abresch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the worst arguments I ever had in public was with my teenage son Olly and stepson Quentin. We were in a restaurant in Lower Hutt. Lorraine and Aaron Cohen had just been arrested for drug trafficking in Malaysia. The boys thought the Cohens deserved whatever they got. They knew the risks.

 I remember asking them if they were in favour of the death penalty. They said they were. I then began describing in graphic detail what happens when a prisoner is hanged, electrocuted, gassed, shot, given a lethal injection. At the end of each description, I heard myself screaming, ‘Is that what you’re in favour of? Come on, tell me, is that what you’re in favour of?’ I was red in the face and they were as pale as sheets. The whole restaurant was listening to this exchange. I had really lost my cool.  Looking back, I don’t feel too bad about it. I think I did the right thing. Perhaps not in the right way, but the right thing nonetheless.

My fierce opposition to the death penalty is based on the simple proposition that every execution is barbaric and that the practice has no place in a civilised society. This is a more fundamental position than that taken by many opponents of capital punishment, who argue that an innocent man or woman may go to the gallows and that this constitutes an egregious breach of natural justice. The argument  is sound, but it allows for the corollary that it is acceptable for a guilty man or woman to go to the gallows. Guilt and innocence are a distraction from the real issue, that the whole process of execution is gruesome and macabre, that the physical and psychological suffering of the prisoner is invariably awful. There is no humane way to take the life of someone who does not wish to die.

Capital punishment thus crosses the line between punishment and torture. And while, in most civilised societies, you will find people, often a majority,  who say they are in favour of capital punishment, you will rarely find people who say they are in favour of torture.

At the heart of this torture is the prisoner’s knowledge of the precise time and manner of his death. Most of us have no idea when we will die or how. Even the terminal cancer patient, given, say, a week to live, operates within a forgiving margin of error, a merciful uncertainty as to the exact moment of death. And the pain of dying is eased not just by medical intervention, but by the physically and mentally anaesthetising processes within the patient’s own mind and body, processes that seem to be part of a natural death.

Now consider the prisoner on death row. What thoughts occupy his mind? What images haunt him in the middle of the night?  Torture. The  torture of unknown terrors, of fearful imaginings.  And in countries like the United States, where (properly) every safeguard against wrongful execution, every opportunity for appeal is built into the process, that torture may last for years. Small wonder that so many death row inmates choose to abandon their appeals or attempt to end their own lives rather than endure such ‘cruel and unusual punishment’.

And when the appeals are exhausted, the prisoner receives that knowledge which the rest of us are spared – the precise time and manner of his death. Here there are no physically or mentally anaesthetising processes, for neither the body nor the mind are ready to die. Death is out of season for a healthy person. Mind and body resist. The commonest words spoken by those about to be executed are, ‘Please, I don’t want to die.’

It may seem strange in the context of such horrendous physical trauma, to concern oneself with the issue of human dignity. But it is interesting to speculate on how you might handle the moment when the cell door opens and the warden says it’s time. Will you walk quietly and stoically to the place of execution? Will you volunteer to sit in the chair, lie down on the gurney?  Will you make a fist to assist the doctor in administering the lethal injection? Will you deeply inhale the gas? Why not? To struggle or resist is futile. Yet somehow it seems more natural, more dignified than to co-operate, to acquiesce in your own killing.

What distinguishes the premeditated and cold-blooded  murder of the citizen by the State from most homicides is in part that it is premeditated and cold-blooded, in part that the victim knows when and how he will die. But there is a further distinction. Faced with a victim pleading for his life, the most brutal killer may, just possibly,  relent and show compassion. Such pleas are wasted in the execution chamber. The State knows no mercy.

Perhaps it is this meeting of absolute power and absolute powerlessness that ultimately offends me most about capital punishment, the annihilation of human dignity that precedes the annihilation of life. One cannot even die by one’s own hand, giving at least an illusion of volition. Those who attempt suicide are rescued from death, in order that they may be later killed.

I do not enjoy writing this. I do not want to think about people frying in electric chairs, their blood boiling in their veins.  I do not want to imagine people choking to death in gas chambers. I do not want to hear in my head the voice of a woman, strapped to a gurney,  pleading for mercy as the prison doctor struggles to find a vein. It is awful. It is the stuff of nightmares.

But precisely because it is awful, precisely because it is the stuff of nightmares, we must think about it.  Faced with a series of savage killings, an increasing number of New Zealanders believe the death penalty should be reintroduced for certain particularly brutal crimes. They are not bad people. You don’t have to be a bad person to think that those who brutally take the lives of others deserve to lose their own. But it is my submission that in order to believe in capital punishment,  you have to be ignorant of what happens at an execution and you have to lack the imagination to put yourself into the mind of the man or woman condemned to death. It is my submission that no informed person with an ounce of humanity can believe in the death penalty.

Against this it may be argued that if capital punishment, however inhumane, deters one potential killer, saves one innocent life, then the price is worth paying. But there is absolutely no evidence that the existence of the death penalty deters potential killers. Indeed the opposite may be the case.

There is one argument for capital punishment that seems to have some logical force – those who are put to death never re-offend. But neither do those who are kept in prison for life. The same outcome can be achieved without killing the offender. The argument thus exposes the only true rationale for the death penalty – to satisfy society’s lust for revenge.

Yet despite what I regard as the overwhelming arguments against capital punishment, if enough New Zealanders demand the re-introduction of the death penalty for certain categories of murder, then, whatever they say now, the politicians will eventually support it. It is in their nature. A recent poll found that almost half of respondents favoured the reintroduction of the death penalty. With the clamour for harsher penalties for violent offenders, championed by Garth McVicar and others, it is not fanciful to speculate that the lethal injection may be just around the corner.

In a democracy each of us must accept responsibility for what we choose. And each of us has a moral obligation to ensure that, in matters of life and death, our choices are informed. No one who has not read Amnesty International’s annual reports on executions in both the ‘civilised’ and the uncivilised world, is entitled even to express a view on capital punishment, let alone support it. No-one who has not read those reports can begin to answer the question, ‘Is that what you’re in favour of?’

[This piece was originally published as a Listener column]

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17 Comments:

  1. I loathe the death penalty. It removes the possibility for redemption. The only way I can see the death penalty as justified is where someone guilty beyond doubt of a terrible crime can not be securely jailed, which just isn’t an issue with modern prisons.

    Prisoners need to be treated with as much dignity is possible, whilst keeping the community safe. I do think there is an element of punishment when it comes to jailing someone, although perhaps ‘consequence’ would be a better word. However I think that prison must focus on rehabilitation because all people, even the most violent offenders should be given hope and the chance to change for the better.

    Rehabilitation works towards the redemption of the individual and it also makes society safer when people don’t re-offend, so as far as I see it’s a win-win approach. Still what would be even better would be programs to help people not offend in the first place, for example better help for drug and alcohol problems.

  2. Its good to see your children brought up in a loving home not carry the burden of your sickly liberalism:

    Capital punishment is an obvious necessity for people like Graeme Burton.
    Give me the gun or the rope or the needle and I will do it. I would even torture the animal without any conscience at all.

    Brian says
    ” At the heart of this torture is the prisoner’s knowledge of the precise time and manner of his death. Most of us have no idea when we will die or how”
    Nonsense . Most people die of conditions which allow them to know a lot about their impending death
    and Brian says
    “There is one argument for capital punishment that seems to have some logical force – those who are put to death never re-offend. But neither do those who are kept in prison for life.”

    It costs $NZ 100,000 per year to keep a person in jail, significantly more for a psychopath.
    This is a Prince’s salary for most NZers.
    Give me the job, and Iwill clean out the prisons.

    and again from Brian
    “if enough New Zealanders demand the re-introduction of the death penalty for certain categories of murder, then, whatever they say now, the politicians will eventually support it”.

    Yes we do demand capital punishment

    • I would even torture the animal without any conscience at all.

      At this point I lost interest in what you had to say and stopped reading.

  3. Coming from a Country that currently debates and wrestles with the death penalty, I sympathize with the struggle. I can only hope that you continue to put forth the argument against. However, it is difficult for victims families and the communities to think of the condemned as human and therefore reject any argument of the condemned persons feelings. The difficult balancing act is in the restoration of our moral compass, and disallowing politicians to trick the populous into believing that the death penalty is tough on crime and justice, rather than what it really is, revenge.

    • However, it is difficult for victims families and the communities to think of the condemned as human

      Quite right Regina. That is why victims should not be in a position to determine the nature or extent of punishment for the offender. Allowing them to face the offender after sentence and forcefully express their pain and anger, on the other hand, seems to me extremely healthy and cathartic.

  4. I was opposed to the death penalty but that opinion was cemented by a chance encounter with a book years ago. I can’t remember the exact title, wish I could, but saw something like “Until Dead…” on the spine of a book on the returns trolley at the local library. Curiosity got the better of me and it turned out to be a graphic history, descriptions included, of all the gruesome forms of capital punishment. If I had any doubts before reading that book eliminated them!

  5. I worry that a right-wing government will use some horrendious crime as an excuse to bring back the death penalty. The far Right red necks would love to bring it back. However if they were convicted they would use everything in their power to escape it. Apart from being wrong the death penalty has often executed the wrong person.Timothy Evans was only one among many.

    • Apart from being wrong the death penalty has often executed the wrong person.Timothy Evans was only one among many.

      Yes, and dozens if not hundreds of blacks in the US.

  6. Dear Brian
    You write “There is one argument for capital punishment that seems to have some logical force – those who are put to death never re-offend. But neither do those who are kept in prison for life”.
    This idea has none of this ‘logical force’ about it surely. At least some of this violence, sexual and property crime and general criminals relating to criminals going on in prison is offensive enough.
    Graham/Graeme Burton types go at it all over the show.
    But none of this death penalties carry-on thank you.
    Down with Garth McVicar of Dribbley and Happy New Year to Edwards, Callingham & Cats.

    • This idea has none of this ‘logical force’ about it surely. At least some of this violence, sexual and property crime and general criminals relating to criminals going on in prison is offensive enough.

      I suppose you have a point. But it’s not surprising that violent offenders should continue to be as or more violent in prison which is an inherently dehumanising environment. But it remains preferable to taking another human life.

      Most people don’t give a stuff about what happens to people in prison or about the fate of violent offenders generally. I recall Mike Bungay telling me that when one gang member killed another, juries tended not to treat the crime as seriously as if a law-abiding citizen had been the victim. Indeed there was an attitude that it was a generally good outcome. One less gang member. Excellent!

  7. For the first time since I started reading this blog (admittedly not so long ago) I find myself 100% in agreement. Kudos for a passionate and well expressed piece.

  8. There is one argument for capital punishment that seems to have some logical force – those who are put to death never re-offend. But neither do those who are kept in prison for life.

    I’m with ConorJoe on this argument. Try telling this to the family of Liam Ashley.

    Which is not to say I disagree with you about capital punishment, but I think its incapacitory effect is somewhat stronger than you give it credit. That said, however, if someone is on death row for years, what reason have they to be well-behaved? We can’t kill them twice.

    Like Tess, the one circumstance I could begin to contemplate the death penalty (but still wouldn’t actually support it) is prison violence. It’s odd that I’d give prisoners “greater” protection than innocent civilians, but I believe the state has an obligation to house those it incarcerates safely and securely. If it can’t do that, it should be setting people free.

    • I’m with ConorJoe on this argument. Try telling this to the family of Liam Ashley.

      Well, the Liam Ashley case was a failure in the system. The boy should never have been put in the paddy wagon with a dangerous offender like George Baker. The law should not be tailored to failures in the system. The system needs to be fixed to ensure that such tragedies are not repeated. So I agree with you that the prison service has a duty to protect all inmates from harm.

      Similarly, the answer to the torture of waiting sometimes for years to be put to death is not to get it over more quickly but to get rid of a practice actually illegal under the US constitution which forbids “cruel or unusual punishment”.

      One of our biggest problems in this whole area is the failure of most people, certainly in New Zealand, to understand that loss of liberty IS the punishment and that no further punishment should be added to it. If prisons were not such awful places – and they are – the chances of many more people returning to society as worthwhile citizens would be greatly enhanced.

  9. I sometimes wonder whether incarceration for life is not more inhumane than a quick end to life. I am afraid I cannot see this in quite the same black and white terms as you do. Yes, I am opposed to capital punishment, not necessarily because it is barbaric, but because we lower ourselves to the level of the offender. However when some piece of scum is executed overseas I do find it very hard to get indignant or feel much in the way of sympathy.

    An earlier contributor made reference to Burton. I disgree with his sentiments but if I were to hear that another inmate had killed Burton I cannot say I would be bothered.

    This all makes me a much worse person than you no doubt, but I am still assailed with the feeling deep down that here are certain criminals who have forfeited the right to live.

    I do have one big advantage over you though; I firmly believe that on their death they will face far greater retribution than can ever be meted out on this earth.

    A thought provoking contribution on a hot summer’s day. Thank you. Hope you followed my advice and took JC out to dinner and kept the convestaion reasonably light!

    • A thought provoking contribution on a hot summer’s day. Thank you. Hope you followed my advice and took JC out to dinner and kept the convestaion reasonably light!

      Well more or less. I took her out to a rather fine lunch.

      On your points:

      The prospect of life imprisonment might seem more inhumane than execution, but your choices would then seem to be 1) to dispense with life imprisonment altogether and execute all those who would previously have received such a sentence or 2) to allow the person sentenced to life imprisonment the option of being executed (or commiting suicide) or 3) to stop sentencing people to life imprisonment altogether by leaving the possibility of rehabilitation/parole/release open to every condemned person.

      It seems to me that we should set reasonable minimum sentences for all crimes to satisfy society’s need to see wrongdoers punished, but once those sentences have been served, free the person as soon as it has been determined that they have been rehabilitated and are unlikely to reoffend. So the minimum sentence for murder might be 5 years. Most domestic killings occur during drunken arguments. Harsh things are said and one or other of the couple grabs a kitchen knife and stabs the other in the heart. They immediately regret what they’ve done. Well, you still have to go to prison for five years. But what on earth is the point in keeping you there any longer? You will learn nothing more that is good and a lot more than isn’t.

      Your main advantage over me is that your religious belief allows for the possibity of life after death, including the possibility of a second hearing and judgement. The atheist believes that when you’re dead you’re dead. For him the execution of a human being is absolutely final. That in itself is one of the most forceful reasons for opposing it.

  10. While I am generally in full agreement with you on the issue of capital punishment, I do struggle with various ethical aspects of handling violent recidivists. For starters, some of these men are incarcerated until they reach an age where they are deemed as no longer a threat to society (their 50’s). That being the case, very long periods of incarceration are considered to be the only option for these guys, at considerable expense to the taxpayer.
    If one rejects euthanasia as an option, for all the above reasons, then what other options are there?

    If we assume that we all ultimately descend from a long line of ‘successful’ aggressors, it follows that our genetic heritage is doomed to be peppered with potentially very dangerous male animals. Of course we let them breed, we are compassionate folk hot on human rights, we hate eugenics as a selection tool because of what it represents in a previous nasty experiment … so we let them breed, mature, and populate the world with the most dangerous male animal in existence… and then we want to kill him when he engages in specific forms of violence (just consider the range of sanctified alternatives).

    I wonder (in a simplistic dream state, of course) what the result of 1) increased taxes on all males for their cost to society, and 2) compulsory vasectomy for all violent offenders, would have on a society? I believe it is time to put aside irrational responses to social engineering and start considering the problem from point of conception. Yeah, it’s a tad radical. Too many roosters in the hen house?
    Sigh…

    Spare a thought also for the members of other species who also prefer life under the sun to wholesale slaughter to satisfy the cravings of our gluttonous lot.

  11. I can’t believe that so many people side with the criminal. This is a disease, corrupting the West.
    Lawyers make a living defending trash, human dross.
    How these lawyers, can sleep at night, is beyond me. That they defend the obviously guilty, surely means they share the guilt.
    That some of them, dare suggest that prison reform rather than the criminal reform is all important, is insulting to fair minded people everywhere.
    These same, and their ilk, bought about the revocation of the death penalty in most Western countries. Now they make excuses for the escalating number of recidivist offenders etc.
    who are given early release to offend again, as if this is a valid solution to cramped prisons.
    Shame on them! They make their living defending scum. One can only hope, justice eventually rewards them for their betrayal of decency.