Capital Punishment Revival

By Philips, Tom | Contemporary Review, April 1998 | Go to article overview

Capital Punishment Revival


Philips, Tom, Contemporary Review


Twenty-one years ago, on 17 January 1977, Gary Gilmore, a convicted double murderer, was strapped into a chair in a warehouse in Utah State Prison and executed by firing squad. Few other executions this century have attracted so much attention. Camera crews and reporters swarmed. Every detail of Gilmore's case was scrutinised. Publicists and lawyers fought over the rights to his story. Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920s and the 'Atom Spies', Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, in the 1950s had made the headlines and inspired poems and plays but only Gary Gilmore got to become the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Norman Mailer. In The Executioner's Song, Mailer turns Gilmore into the archetypal rootless 'white trash' loser, but the media's interest in Gilmore was more prosaic: his execution brought to an end a four-year hiatus in the use of capital punishment in the United States.

This hiatus began in 1972 when The Supreme Court ruled that, because its use was 'capricious and arbitrary', the death penalty was unconstitutional. Electric chairs, scaffolds and gas chambers started gathering dust. In 1976, however, the decision was overturned. It became a question of waiting to see which capital jurisdiction would become the first to execute a prisoner. Gary Gilmore forced the issue to a crisis and, with some reluctance, the state of Utah ushered in a new era in the history of American capital punishment.

As it turned out, no one else was executed after Gilmore for more than two years but a precedent had been set. His execution showed that it was politically safe to go back to using the death penalty. Condemned prisoners could no longer count on receiving an almost indefinite stay of execution. The abolitionist argument appeared to lose credibility. What grounds could there be for protest when a murderer had insisted that the state put him to death? Although Gilmore only cared about what happened to himself, he nevertheless became a cause celebre - the pro-capital punishment lobby's first and only martyr.

By the early 1980s the return to capital punishment was gathering momentum. In 1984, twenty-one people were executed - more than four times as many as in the previous year. Execution technology was changing, too. States began switching to a method which resembled a medical procedure: the lethal injection.

For the twenty states which have adopted it, the attractions of this method are obvious. In theory at least, the condemned simply goes to sleep; the executioners simply press a button; and the public simply do not hear so many horror stories from the execution chamber. The prisoner is a patient. Execution becomes euthanasia. What could be more 'civilised' than that?

In the United States, the desire to 'civilise' or, more accurately, sanitize capital punishment dates back to the late nineteenth century. As Jesse James gave way to Henry James, the frontier justice of the lynchmob and the posse no longer accorded with the nation's image of itself. A new civilisation needed new execution technologies. The sanitization process began.

A similar process had already transformed capital punishment in Europe. France's guillotine offered one solution to the problem of despatching criminals as swiftly as possible while, in Britain, the 'long drop' method of hanging supposedly caused instant painless death. In the United States, neither of these methods won much support. Instead, a number of unlikely mechanisms - including a spring-loaded gallows which broke a prisoner's neck by catapulting him into the air - were tested but abandoned before a commission set up by Governor Hill of New York came up with the idea of electrocution. Shortly afterwards, the first electric chairs were installed and, on 6 August 1890, William Kemmler was electrocuted in front of twenty-five witnesses in Auburn prison. It took two large applications of current to ensure that he was dead but the authorities considered the execution a success. …

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