Magazine article The Spectator

How Kindness Is Killing the Death Penalty

Magazine article The Spectator

How Kindness Is Killing the Death Penalty

Article excerpt

New Orleans

BACK in 1996, I was trying to stop the state of Georgia from electrocuting Larry Lonchar, a convicted murderer. The prison employees who conduct an execution are volunteers, which means that most of them are sadists. Shortly before Larry was to be strapped into Old Sparky, one of the warders handed him a piece of paper on which was printed a description of what was about to happen: `When the executioner throws the switch that sends the electric current through the body, the prisoner cringes from torture, his flesh swells and his skin stretches to the point of breaking. He defecates, he urinates, his tongue swells and his eyes pop out.... His flesh is burned and smells of cooked meat. When the autopsy is performed the liver is so hot it cannot be touched by human hand.'

That time, we stopped Larry's execution well into the llth hour - actually, just 32 minutes before the seven o'clock deadline. At night, sometimes, I still see his wild eyes when he handed the crumpled paper to me. Later, the stays were lifted and they went ahead and killed him. As his lawyer, I had to be there. The witnesses didn't see all the horrors, of course, because they covered his face with an appalling leather mask and strapped his mouth so tightly that he could not scream. But I knew what he was going through.

On 16 May Timothy McVeigh will be strapped on to a gurney at Terre Haute penitentiary, Indiana, and killed in an altogether more humane way. Poison will be injected into his arm. Minutes later, barring some medical bungle, he will be dead. His execution will be celebrated by some, and observed in studied silence by the antideath-penalty movement. Timothy McVeigh is not our poster child.

We all have our bigotries, and I hate capital punishment. I arrived in the United States from England 23 years ago and have spent the past 17 years representing people facing execution. I work for a charity in New Orleans that has an amorphous name - the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center because it means that nobody knows what we do, and that stops the bomb threats from frustrated advocates of the death penalty.

Shortly after McVeigh blew up 168 people in the Oklahoma City federal building on 19 October, 1995, I was asked whether I would help represent him. I declined, not because I thought he should die but because there would be plenty of money for his defence ($10 million, as it turned out). This, combined with the notoriety of the case, was bound to attract competent lawyers to his side. He had no need of me.

A century ago capital punishment was routine everywhere. Today there are 108 countries that don't execute, and 87 that do. The death penalty is dying, suffocated in the effort to make it kinder, gentler. Not that the number of countries retaining the death penalty gives the full picture. More people live in countries where criminals are executed than in countries where they are not. Between them, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia and the USA - eight countries that have retained the death penalty - account for 3.4 billion of the world's 6 billion people. But last year almost 90 per cent of all executions took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the USA. Japan had just three; Russia none.

No matter what the numbers, the real story is a human one. I always ask jurors the ultimate question of capital punishment, when they must decide whether my client should die: `Why do we need to kill Tim McVeigh?' If a killing is unnecessary, we should not do it. There are, of course, execution exponents who believe that the noose, or at least the needle, will reign again. When Louisiana introduced the death penalty for statutory rape in 1996, the state court suggested that the new law was `the beginning of a trend' that other states might follow, an evolution in the `standards of decency' of our society. The court was wrong. Other states have not followed Louisiana's decent approach to rape. …

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