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In the Name of the People -- State Execution in the 21st Century

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In my most recent book, The Inheritance, set in England in 1959, there is a race against time to save a young man from the gallows. The death penalty was abolished in the UK in 1965, and moving to the US and my experience as a criminal defence lawyer have made me think long and hard about the whole issue. Few other subjects arouse such intensity of emotion. Perhaps this is because there are two such violent sides to the same coin. After a premeditated murder it is hard not to empathise with the popular desire for the perpetrator to suffer the ultimate punishment, and yet when the moment of execution comes, often years later, it is equally hard not to feel a sense of revulsion about the process. The only kindness in death is that even the most terminally ill person does not have to know when it will come, but the condemned man does not have that luxury. He must wait for years on death row and then go through his last day, his last dinner, the shaving and the shackling, hoping to be spared but knowing he must die. In Truman Capote's In Cold Blood the reader travels from hatred of the criminals to a reluctant sympathy for them as they face their ends. We run the whole gamut of emotion in several hundred pages.

Execution is not an emotional act. It is an act of justice carried out in the name of the people as a whole. In a civilised society citizens give up their rights of revenge to the state and expect in return that wrongdoers will be punished for their crimes. The death penalty can certainly be justified on this basis, but isn't there also an expectation that the objectivity of the justice process will lead to a more considered, less violent approach? There is something disconcerting about seeing some of the Supreme Court justices, supposedly the cleverest people in the land, being such ardent supporters of putting people to death. And at the same time they are known as diehard opponents of abortion. This surely doesn't make sense. If human life is sacred from the moment of conception then how can it be right for the state to kill people? A principle is absolute or it isn't a principle.

Advances in DNA profiling also affect the death penalty argument. Just last week Frank Sterling was freed in New York after DNA evidence exonerated him of a gruesome murder for which he spent 18 years in prison after making a false confession. He is not the first man wrongly convicted of murder and he will not be the last. The Death Penalty Information Center lists 138 people in 26 states who have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence since 1973. How can right wingers who fight so hard for the preservation of life not be concerned about the execution of possibly innocent men and women?

And yet the law often seems unconcerned with the possibility of innocence. In Texas Hank Skinner continues to be denied a DNA analysis of items found at the scene of his girlfriend's murder in 1993 purely on the basis that his lawyers did not ask for this at trial, and only last month Skinner's execution was blocked by the Supreme Court with only an hour to spare. Skinner is neither the first nor the last defendant on a capital charge to suffer from appalling representation in the courtroom.

Ultimately the financial cost of seeking the death penalty may become the driving force toward its eventual abolition. In California, a state that is spending $137,000,000 per year on maintaining its death row, schooldays are being savagely cut and many homicide investigations have had to be put on hold due to a budget crisis in Los Angeles. However, shortage of money should not be the defining argument in the debate. In Ohio in 1984 Romell Broom murdered a 14 year old girl and on September 15 last year the state executioners tried for two hours without success to find a usable vein in his body into which to inject a cocktail of lethal drugs. This is surely not what a civilised state should be doing. Many death row inmates like Broom certainly deserve to die, but their execution debases the society which inflicts it upon them. Better surely that they should spend the rest of their lives behind bars without possibility of parole where they would receive no pity at all.

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