I have never supported the death penalty. Maybe I was influenced when I was six or seven years old by the fact that our next-door neighbour in Campden Hill Square, west London, was a woman who devoted her life to campaigning for its abolition. She was born Violet Dodge in Surrey in 1882, the daughter of a washerwoman and of a ‘coal porter’ (a person whose job is to carry sacks of coal). She herself had worked for a while as a scullery maid, but eventually became immensely rich for inventing and manufacturing Shavex, the first brushless shaving-cream. She also married a Belgian painter called Jean Van der Elst, who died suddenly in 1934 and in whose memory she dedicated herself to the campaign against capital punishment.
Whenever there was an execution pending, she would set off from Campden Hill Square in her chauffeur-driven yellow Rolls-Royce to protest outside the prison where the hanging was to take place. There, weighing 15 stone and dressed in black, she would harangue the waiting crowd with shouts of ‘murder’ while planes flew overhead trailing black streamers, and a brass band below played the Dead March from Handel’s Saul. Such displays were very expensive, as were her three unsuccessful efforts to get herself elected to parliament, and she eventually dissipated her fortune by buying, restoring and lavishly furnishing a colossal and magnificent neo-Jacobean house of 1837 called Harlaxton Manor near Grantham in Lincolnshire, which had become derelict and was threatened with demolition.
Mrs Van der Elst had already sold Harlaxton Manor when, after the war, she was living next door to us in London, still in considerable style. But she soon sold that, too, and she was to die penniless and forgotten in a London flat in 1966, one year after capital punishment was abolished in Britain. I thought she was probably mad — she held séances to communicate with her late husband — but I was impressed by the fervour with which she opposed the death penalty and believed that hers was the morally correct position.
If Mrs Van der Elst were alive today, she would be happy to see that no country in western Europe now has the death penalty, but would be appalled by its survival in the United States, especially as it is carried out there in such a ghoulish fashion. Although the American Constitution forbids ‘cruel and unusual punishment’, the Supreme Court, surprisingly, does not regard execution itself as such. But what about lethal injection, the method now used for nearly all judicial killings in the US?
The question of whether lethal injection is ‘cruel and unusual’ has been much debated, and it came under scrutiny again last week when it was used to execute a convicted murderer, Dennis McGuire, 53, who took 25 minutes to die. Witnesses watched in horror as he struggled, gasped, snorted and made choking noises before he finally expired. The irony is that it has been in the pursuit of greater humanity that the Americans have developed more and more inhumane ways of killing people. It is their love of innovation that seems to be the trouble.
In the late 19th century they decided that hanging was primitive and so invented an alternative, the electric chair. But this turned out to be even more revolting. People’s heads caught fire. Their skin burnt and oozed. They lost control of their bodily functions. So, looking for something more modern and efficient, America then plumped for lethal injection. But this also turned out to be less than ideal. It involved the administration of three separate drugs — one to induce unconsciousness, one to paralyse the muscles, and one to stop the heart beating. But the anaesthetic was short-acting, and it was thought possible that, once it had worn off, the condemned person might suffer excruciating pain but be unable to show it because the paralysis-inducing drug prevented him from moving or crying out.
Still, worse was to follow; for in 2010 the European Union countries banned the export to the US of drugs that might be used in executions. The result was that supplies of the approved drugs ran out and the American authorities were forced to improvise with new and untried drug combinations (which was what happened in the ghastly case of Dennis McGuire). If you are going to execute people at all, it is obvious that the most efficient and painless ways of doing so are the old ones — by firing squad or the guillotine, for example. Even hanging isn’t bad (the famous British hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, claimed he could dispose of people in seven seconds). But America will have no truck with such old-fashioned practices; and if the technological masters of the universe are incapable of putting a person to death in a painless and efficient manner, then it is time they listened to Mrs Van der Elst and stopped doing it altogether.
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