Former First Minister Henry McLeish on visiting death row

The evolution of civilised behaviour, indicating a retreat from barbarism, has become a distinctive feature of most modern western democracies, but America often disappoints, retaining practices that shock, sadden, and in my case, nearly made me physically sick.
An execution death chamber in Huntsville, Texas,An execution death chamber in Huntsville, Texas,
An execution death chamber in Huntsville, Texas,

My visit to death row at McAlester State Penitentiary, Oklahoma, brought home to me, how the final setting for government sponsored killings, combined with execution by lethal injection, brought a brutal end to lives. And made a mockery of the idea of justice, offering instead a violent, humiliating, and inhuman act of revenge, with no serious pretence that any of these end of life dramas, provide any deterrence in criminal justice terms.

Formerly known as “Indian Territory”, and home of the Cherokee Nation, Oklahoma, with a population of over 4 million, became a state in 1907. Located in America’s “Bible” belt, where there is a strong fundamentalist Christian tradition and powerful Republican politics, Oklahoma remains a prolific executioner, gaining notoriety recently for botched executions.

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The Execution chamber has the appearance of a small hospital operating theatre, but the clinical conditions do not hide the fact that this is where people are killed.

Prisoners receiving the death penalty are strapped to a cross shaped, gurney and tubes are inserted through which they receive three injections-one to relax the muscles, second to anaesthetise and the third to kill. The orderlies administering the injections are behind a screen. There are no doctors because the medical professions cannot take lives. Above the head of the condemned person, lying on the gurney, is a microphone. Before the execution starts, he or she is asked for any last words. There is a small viewing audience of friends, family, and media, completing, an ugly and unedifying spectacle. My feeling of nausea occurred when sitting on the gurney the total nightmare of this place hit home.

The execution unit had a sinister and intimidating atmosphere. Prisoners with little prospect of a stay of execution or reprieve from the Governor or Supreme Court, could spend up to 20 years on death row. once they had exhausted the appeals process, and still be executed.

Oklahoma has life sentences without parole, so that in addition to bodies being taken out of the prison after execution, there are people dying of old age and natural causes-the only way their sentence is going to end. Poverty, race, ethnicity, and poor education dominate the profile of death row inmates across America.

This visit to death row only strengthened my opposition to the death penalty and convinced me that America is an embarrassing outlier, indulging in a totally abhorrent process where there is no dignity for the executed, for those doing it, those witnessing it or for society as a whole.

So why do 28 US states, the Federal Government and the Military retain the death penalty, having executed 1500 people since the reintroduction of the punishment by the Supreme Court in 1976, after a four-year moratorium?

Based on the work of “Amnesty International” and “Death Penalty Focus”, There is no credible justification for the continuing use of the death penalty despite some well- worn myths about this costly failed system.

A death sentence costs less than a life sentence. Not true. A complex legal process of appeals of up to 20 years, costs millions of dollars and the special infrastructural costs, in the “death” prisons is enormous.

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The death penalty makes Americans safer. Not true. There is not a single piece of evidence or research to suggest a deterrent effect.

The death penalty is the only way to provide closure to the victim’s families. Not true. There is no evidence to support this claim.

The death penalty is the only way to make sure a convicted murderer is never released from prison. Not true. A life sentence without any prospect of parole.

And the most ridiculous claim is that Innocent people have never been executed. Not true. Especially since the introduction of DNA testing, this has been proved conclusively, to be one of the great tragedies of executions.

The death penalty is a discredited relic from the darkest reaches of American life. A thirst for revenge, reflecting historical, moral, religious, colonial, cultural traits, a punitive approach to crime and punishment, laced with an, “eye for an eye”, mentality have kept America looking and acting like some faded wild west films.

The number of executions in the US has declined by nearly 75% in recent years, from nearly 300 death sentences per year in the 1990s. But in 2019, 22 people were executed, 34 death sentences were imposed, and 2656 prisoners were still on death row.

We could of course blame the British. The first recorded execution was in the British colony of James Town Virginia in 1608. Nearer home the UK abolished the death penalty in 1969, after centuries of cruel and inhuman executions. Only Belarus and Russia retain the death penalty in Europe and the EU has made the scrapping of executions, a prior condition of membership.

Internationally 142 countries have abolished the death penalty with 56 countries retaining this punishment. In 2019, 86 % of all officially recorded executions took place in four countries, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt. China and North Korea do not provide figures, but deaths are believed to be measured in thousands. America, with 22 executions, occupies 6th place in the World rankings. Other countries jostling to compete with the US are Somalia, Pakistan, Libya, and Vietnam.

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From the late 18th century the roots of the abolitionist movement were found in European philosophers such as Montesquieu, Bentham and Voltaire who believed, “there was no justification for a state to take a man’s life”. This holds today.

The question is not why the US has used the death penalty. Many countries, like the United Kingdom, have executed people. The question is why America continues to hang on to this degrading punishment, ignoring global moves towards respect for life and distancing itself from decent, democratic countries. It seems that the empty and soulless din of exceptionalism continues to isolate America from common sense and humanity?

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