Stephen McGinty: The death penalty debate

Polls suggest that support is growing for the return of the death penalty. Fifty years after Scotland’s last execution Stephen McGinty is disturbed at the prospect

A crowd gathers outside Craiginches Prison for the hanging of Henry Burnett. Picture: Press & Journal

GEORGE Orwell taught me what it means to be hanged. I can still remember reading his essay A Hanging in our fourth year English class and being struck by his description of a condemned man walking to the gallows. The first line is justly memorable: “It was in Burma, a sodden morning of the rains. A sickly, light, like yellow tinfoil, was slanting over the high walls into the jail yard.”

Yet it was the latter passage when the condemned man steps aside to avoid a puddle on route to the gallows that struck me as profoundly disturbing, more so than if he had pleaded or begged for his life.

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“And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path. It is curious, but till that moment I had never realised what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working – bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming – all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned – reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, understanding the same world; and in two minutes with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone – one mind less, one world less.”

On Thursday, exactly 50 years ago, Henry “Harry” Burnett’s bowels were digesting food, his skin was renewing itself and his nails growing, right up until the second when the 21-year-old fell through the trap door of the gallows erected inside Craiginches prison in Aberdeen where he became the last person executed in Scotland.

Centuries of capital punishment that enfolded our nation’s bloody history from the immolation of old women branded as witches to traitors being hung, drawn and quartered had finally come to a close.

Burnett had shot dead Thomas Guyan, the estranged husband of his lover Margaret Guyan, to whom she looked set to return. After the killing he dragged her from the house, stole a car and proposed marriage as they drove off north towards Peterhead. There was to be no church altar in his future, only a court dock and a jail cell after he pulled over and gave himself up to two police officers.

Today, there is a not inconsiderable majority who are in favour of the return of the death penalty. A recent poll in the Mail on Sunday carried out after the murder of Lee Rigby found that 63 per cent were in favour of convicted terrorists being sentenced to death, while a poll carried out after the murder of Manchester police officers Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone had 48 per cent in favour of the death penalty with 44 against.

Those in favour of a return to the gallows, or as currently in vogue in America, the lethal injection, believe that there are crimes so heinous that this remains the most suitable form of punishment. If you take the life of a child or a police officer then your own should end with a short drop or a quick jab.

On one side I do see the logic; there are criminals with such a violent, homicidal nature that they will never stop and it requires all the firm efforts of the state to keep them secure and the public safe.

To say one is against the death penalty is to say that British society is a better place for keeping alive men such as Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper; Robert Black, the child murderer and Peter Tobin, the multiple murderer who killed Angelika Kluk and hid her body under the floorboards of a Catholic Church in Anderston.

If their crimes had been committed and a conviction secured prior to 1963 there is no doubt that each of them would have been hanged.

There would be no requirement for the taxpayer to continue to fund their bed and board, their restricted entertainment, their access to libraries, exercise, films and television. It does seem strange that when each of these three men falls ill, the state will do its utmost to ensure their recovery and continued good health.

One can see the clean, grim logic of a swift execution, not only on grounds of natural justice but cost at a time of national austerity.

The argument against the death penalty hinges on two clear points. The first is about the spectre of a wrongful conviction and the irreparable consequence of the trap door swinging open. The annals of British history are littered with cases of wrongful conviction and there simply cannot be a greater, more disturbing miscarriage of justice than a man or woman executed for a crime they did not commit.

The return of the death penalty means such a spectre would be unavoidable and even if the odds were one innocent man for every 1,000 killed, could that be justifiable? I think not. Yet others could argue that the state makes errors that result in the loss of an innocent person’s life on a regular basis.

The recent scandal in the NHS which revealed how thousands had died needlessly is a case in point, although there is a clear difference between negligence or lack of adequate care and compassion, and the deliberate destruction of a life by the hangman, although once a person is on the mortuary slab these differences of intent, or its lack, would no longer matter.

The second point is that the return of the death penalty would bring a certain icy brutality back into public life. When a judge dons his or her black hankie and sentences an individual to death it is a grim, violent act. I want to believe that the mechanism of the state leading a man to a place of execution and putting him to death would somehow diminish me or you.

He would have been executed in the Queen’s name, but really on behalf of us, to ensure his heinous crimes are punished and a repeat offence rendered impossible. I’m not quite sure how that would make me feel.

What I do know is that the state is quite willing to kill in our name and, tragically, it is often the wrong people.

I know millions were against the war in Iraq, but the point I could never quite square was when Tony Blair said that the war was of crucial importance to the safety of the British people, that in order to protect us it was necessary to embark on a course of action which would result, unfortunately, in the deaths of thousands, tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children. Rather than wait until we were directly struck or threatened and then deal with the consequences it was necessary to act now. It seemed to me as if we were using the Iraqi people or their bodies as sandbags for our own protection.

The hypocrisy reached its zenith over the British government’s complaint that the provisional government of Iraqi wished to hang Saddam Hussein. Prior to his capture, all manner of rockets were launched to ensure his downfall in the certain knowledge that the innocent would die along with the guilty, but now Hussein should be allowed to live?

No political party except Ukip and the BNP believe in the return of the death penalty and if the noose swung back, would it act as a deterrent? No. Those who are compelled to murder by some internal, crooked mechanism will continue to do so, while those who act in the hellish heat of the moment never did and never will stop to think. It will also make murder convictions harder to secure as already 25 per cent of people polled said they would be reluctant to convict on a capital charge.

The only reason for its introduction would be to assauge that feeling that certain people get what they believe they deserve. One thing is certain, the media coverage and publicity surrounding a modern British execution is barely worth contemplating in this age of Twitter and 24-hour rolling news.

While Henry Burnett died, unaware that he would be the last man in Scotland to be executed, The Scotsman considered his death worth exactly three sentences, less than 50 words:

Murderer Hanged

Henry John Burnett (21) was hanged yesterday morning in Craiginches Prison, Aberdeen for the murder of Thomas Guyan, a merchant seaman. It was the first execution in the city for 106 years. A crowd of almost 500 gathered outside the prison, but there was no demonstration.