Long life

If America can't put a person to death painlessly, it should stop executions altogether

Dennis McGuire took 25 minutes to die by a new drug via lethal injection. A pursuit for greater humanity has led to more inhumane ways of killing

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

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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  • David Kay

    They should just shoot them. A bullet travels faster than the speed of sound so they wouldnt even hear the bang, they’d just cease to exist. A bit messy but its quick. A more humane way would be to fill their cell with carbon monoxide while they were asleep one night. They just wouldnt wake up

    Like you say, the fastest judicial hanging was by the great albert pierrepoint which was 7.5 seconds from when the condemned left the cell to the trap door opening, but he didnt die right away, it takes about 35 mins for the heart to stop beating. Thats why they had to leave them hanging for 1 hour.

    When they executed the german socialists after WWII they also gave them a lethal injection to the heart to speed up the process simply because of the numbers they were hanging, they didnt have the time to leave them for the hour, and the time was reduced to 30 mins

    Pierrepoints views on the subject were

    “It is said to be a deterrent. I cannot agree. There have been murders since the beginning of time, and we shall go on looking for deterrents until the end of time. If death were a deterrent, I might be expected to know. It is I who have faced them last, young men and girls, working men, grandmothers. I have been amazed to see the courage with which they take that walk into the unknown. It did not deter them then, and it had not deterred them when they committed what they were convicted for. All the men and women whom I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder.”

    • James Currin

      Who exactly were the “German Socialists” who were executed after WWII? This sounds like a cock-and-bull story.

      • David Kay

        The National German SOCIALIST Workers Party members who were all found guilty of war crimes and hanged by the great Albert Pierepoint. He executed 200 of these socialists. What a great fella. I couldnt think of a better job than hanging socialists

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Pierrepoint

        • James Currin

          I might add that the great Pierrepoint was not engaged to be a Social Philosopher but as a technician who’s duties were to speed convicted murderers to the next world. In any case, he took the King’s Shilling and it is most unseemly for him to share his second thoughts on his career.

          • David Kay

            sounds like a cock-and bull-story from you

  • James Currin

    A painless death is a boon granted to a relative few, as I hope Alexander Chancellor will discover in the fullness of time. He forebears to tell us that Dennis Mcguire’s victim was a young pregnant woman whom he raped and then murdered. It is fair to assume that her suffering lasted somewhat longer than the 25 minutes that it took Mr. Mcguire to cross the bar. I only wish it could have been longer.
    Alexander Chancellor’s moral cretinism is unfortunately characteristic of many opponents of capital punishment who shed bitter tears on behalf of vicious murderers but don’t even know who their victims were. His only purpose in writing this stupid article appears to be to establish his moral superiority to the barbarous Americans.

  • Retired Nurse

    Hydromorphone and midazolam…both in use in NHS Scotland for ‘palliative care’…LMAO as they say…

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