Death penalty should be a dead penalty

| by Dr Reeza Hameed

( December 25, 2012, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) Tissa Abeyratne in his interesting article “The Death Penalty – SomeJurisprudential Thoughts” (Sri Lanka Guardian 27 November 2012) dealt with the arguments for and against the death penalty and the philosophical issues it raised.  Suriya Wickremasinghe, in a statement issued several years ago on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka, explained at length why capital punishment was bad. One of the points made in the CRM statement was that there are other, humane, ways of punishing an individual.

Death penalty has no place in a modern society because it is a cruel form of punishment.

The death penalty is a cruel, inhumane, form of punishment. It is pre-meditated killing by the state. The unarticulated rationale of the death penalty is that the person on whom it is inflicted is unworthy of living.
Experience has shown that miscarriages of justice are not uncommon and because the killing of a man wrongly convicted is irreversible, it is impossible for the state to redress the wrong done to him and his famliy. The credibility of the judicial system is undermined by sending the wrong man to the gallows.
Miscarriages of justice may be uncovered many years after the event.  In 1950, Timothy Evans, a man of low intelligence, was convicted of killing his wife and his infant daughter and sentenced to death. Evans signed separate confessions after being questioned by detectives, who knew that he suffered from learning difficulties.Three years later, the infamous John Christie confessed to the killing. Evans was posthumously pardoned but he remained dead.
Derek Bentley was hanged in 1953 for the killing of a policeman. He was mentally backward and made confessions to the police but it was subsequently proved that they had been edited. It was only in 1998, following a review of his case, that his conviction was found to be unsafe. Lord Bingham ruled that Bentley did not get a fair trial because the judge had misdirected the jury and summed up unfairly for a conviction.
The hangman who executed Evans was Syd Dernley. He used to boast of himself as the fastest hangman of Britain. In his memoir, he tells of his decision to become a professional hangman at age 11 after he had read a novel by the well known crime writer Edgar Wallace. He wrote: “I wanted to achieve the fastest hanging ever. I did one chap in seven seconds: they should place that in the Guinness Book of Records.”
Dernley had a full time job as a welder and did hanging part time and was paid three guineas for each hanging. He was an understudy of Albert Pierpont who was Her Majesty’s Chief Executioner at the time.
Albert Pierpont’s father and uncle had been earning the King’s guineas as executioners on the side and he wished to follow in their footsteps after he had read the diaries of the executions which his uncle had meticulously kept. He seemed to have taken pride in his father’s profession. As was the case with Syd Dernley, he was only 11 when he made up his mind to become one himself.
There must be something about the job that made them to get the urge to become one at 11 and also tell the rest of the world about what they did. After their retirement, both Pierpont and Dernley wrote their memoirs. One does not get the impression that they suffered any pangs of conscience because of what they did. It Is possible that they gave a sanitised account of what they did.
Dernley did not allow sentiment get in the way and never really wondered about the guilt or innocence of the man he killed. Although it disturbed him to think that innocent people could be killed, he was quite satisfied that he had not killed any who was innocent. Both Pierpont and Dernley spoke of their efforts to refine and fine tune the process of hanging and make it quicker and efficient, but taking the seconds out the time it took to kill a man did not remove the cruelty ouf of hanging.
After  his retirement, Pierpont publicly expressed his views against capital punishment, which he described as “a primitive desire for revenge”. He believed that most of the people he had executed had killed in the heat of the moment, and that capital punishment did not act as a deterrent.
That, indeed, is one of the objections against death penalty. Many murders are committed in a moment of madness without thought being given to the consequences of the crime. Even a caclulating criminal with a pre-meditated plan to kill might not be deterred because he would probably think of himself as clever and capable of avoiding the consequences of his actions.
Apparently, when the the Sri Lanka  prison department advertised for a hangman, nearly 200 applicants had applied. Women were excluded. The notice was carried only in a Sinhalese newspaper. In the vernacular, a hangman is referred to as vadhaka,  commonly known as ‘alugosuwa’, a word which is of Portuguese origin. No detailed job description was given in the notice but many of the applicants who turned up at the interview did not have the stomach for the job and slipped away when the duties it involved were made clear to them.
Hanging is a sordid business. As Pierpont’s uncle had advised him: “If you can’t do it without whisky, don’t do it at all.”
The subject of hanging brings to mind the name of Judge Jeffries who acquired notoriety as “the hanging judge”. Accoding to some, another judge who deserved that epithet was Lord Goddard, who presided over Derek Bentley’s trial. Lord Goddard harboured very strong views about capital punishment and did not believe that the act of killing could have any mitigating circumstances. According to his clerk, Lord Goddard wet his trousers each time he passed the sentence and kept an extra pair of trousers at hand on such occasions.
Let Lord Dennning have the last word on the subject. Lord Denning had on many occasions passed the death sentence and also given evidence before a Royal Commission for its retention. Years later, he changed his mind. To him, it was an ethical and not a legal question. He asked: “Is it right that we, as a society, should do a thing – hang a man- which none of us individually would be prepared to do, or even witness?” 
Death penalty has no place in a modern society because it is a cruel form of punishment.

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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