Hazel McHaffie

death penalty

Is it ever right to take a life?

With all the events marking 75 years since D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, and other war-related events, my mind has been travelling the well-worn path of … is it ever justifiable to take a life? And is there a kind of life that’s worse than death?

Then for the last two Thursdays those questions have swirled again, watching Susanna Reid interviewing inmates awaiting execution in maximum security prisons in the USA for her series: Death Row: Countdown to Execution. The state of Texas supports the death penalty, and the locals appear to take it in their stride, but Susanna found it unsettling just being in the town with the execution chamber, to know exactly when a human being was being walked to that gurney, strapped down, given that lethal shot of Pentobarbital. She wanted to know exactly what was happening, how everyone felt – the convicted man, the family, the witnesses, the townspeople. She’d met these men briefly in the last few days of their lives, and in spite of their criminal backgrounds, it clearly troubled her.

Many inmates are held on Death Row for decades (the average 12 years) and massive amounts of money are spent on appeals even up to the eleventh hour. Fewer than 2% are exonerated but the process has to be gone through, seeking additional years or days of life if nothing else. For those who are the victims of the crimes (and that often includes the family of the convicted man) the death brings a form of closure; but opponents believe that society should not sink to their level. After all, as they said, we don’t rape rapists, we don’t steal from burglars; why should we kill murderers? ‘We should be better than that.

And against all this my mind goes to my own area of particular interest, viz the issues around assisted death for people on a different kind of trajectory: those with incurable, degenerative illnesses; trapped for years in many cases, with no hope of a reprieve. Their own kind of death row; their own kind of hell. And our society – too humane to kill convicts – is also unwilling to countenance patients ending their own lives when the pain, the suffering, the indignity, are intolerable. Is this justice? Is this fair? Is it humane? As Scottish former Rugby Union player Doddie Weir (who has Motor Neuron Disease himself and has just buried his mother after a fairly short experience of cancer) said this week: Being a farming boy, when there is no hope with the animals you are able to put them out of their misery, but with humans it is not allowed. It does not seem fair sometimes.

So many truly difficult questions; so many nuances and valid perspectives. I studied this topic in depth before writing Right to Die, published in 2008. I’ve repeatedly returned to it since. Eleven years on we’re no further forward in terms of the law. Assisted suicide is still illegal; doctors who help a person to die still face a jail sentence of up to 14 years. However, public opinion has swung much more towards some provision to help people caught up in these intolerable situations, helped in no small measure by the brave souls who have shared their harrowing experiences openly. Then in March this year, the Royal College of Physicians declared neutrality on the subject. And this week the Royal College of General Practitioners has said it will consult its 53,000 members on whether the time has come to drop their opposition to assisted dying. The wheels grind oh so slowly, but they do seem to be turning.

What do you think?

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A Place of Execution

Every once in while a book comes into my orbit that’s so well crafted that it leaves me buzzing. Sacred and Profane, Fingersmith and Past Caring spring to mind.

This week I’ve been awed by the skill of crime writer Val McDermid in A Place of Execution. Written in 1999 it’s not new but it’s only just come to my attention, recommended unreservedly by a friend – thanks, Barbara.

The main story is set in the early 60s in Derbyshire around the time when the Moors murderers were perpetrating their deadly attacks on children in the Manchester area. The historical context, together with the unembellished matter-of-fact account of the investigation seen through the eyes and mind of a young detective in charge of his first major case, gives a sense of real-life happening to this fiction which got me off to a promising start.

When thirteen-year-old Alison Carter goes missing from the tiny hamlet of Scardale there are those who believe the events are linked. Law graduate, fast-tracked-for-promotion, Inspector George Bennett is not among them. His every instinct tells him the squire’s step-daughter has been abducted and murdered by a local person. But gathering evidence in a close-knit in-bred community, hostile to anyone from outside its ranks, is an uphill struggle. Each fragment of evidence comes at a price.

PARTIAL SPOILER ALERT. If you plan to read this book you might want to skip the rest of this post. It doesn’t reveal the most important facts but it does indicate the progress of the investigation, trial, outcome and subsequent findings.

A compelling case builds as George is guided towards his goal:

– two people swear to seeing a man walking the fields when he claims he was elsewhere;

– a fragment of wool, a smear of blood, a duffle toggle, and trampled vegetation suggest a struggle in nearby woodland;

– a disdainful old woman points them in the direction of a disused mine-working long forgotten by the locals but recorded in a book in the squire’s library;

– torn woollen tights and semen-stained gym knickers found in that mine indicate rape;

– the squire’s wife finds a gun wrapped in a bloodied made-to-measure shirt hidden in a dark room, damning evidence of a terrible crime;

– photographs hidden in an underground safe give incontrovertible evidence of foul goings on in Alison’s bedroom.

George and his colleagues are so appalled by what they find, so convinced of the man’s guilt, that they pursue the criminal with all the resources at their disposal and at the expense of their own private lives. The fact that George is about to become a father for the first time adds zeal to his crusade. A compelling case is built for the murder of Alison Carter even in the absence of a body. But the rapist has powerful lawyers with formidable reputations on his defence team. George’s own motivation and integrity are dragged through the mire in the courts.

The evidence of the photographs, though, is powerful stuff; the jury are appalled by what they see and unanimous in their verdict. The first part of the book ends with a stroke-by-stroke account of the hanging of the perpetrator of this terrible violation and murder. As the man falls through the trapdoor and his neck is dislocated, George’s firstborn son enters the world. One life begins as another one ends.

But the reader is left with a sense of unease. Everything points to this man’s guilt but something isn’t right. The rest of the novel (146 of 549 pages) is devoted to events thirty-five years later. A journalist who grew up not far from Scardale and who was contemporaneous with Alison Carter, has finally persuaded George Bennett, now retired, to talk for the first time about his experience of the Carter case, for a book. He finds it unexpectedly cathartic. The manuscript is almost ready for submission to the publisher when George is persuaded to revisit Scardale. What he finds there so shocks him that he feels forced, without explanation, to withdraw permission for publication. So powerful is his reaction that he ends up in Intensive Care fighting for his life after a severe heart attack.

But the journalist is too close to the scoop of the century to back down so easily. She too visits Scardale. She too sees what George sees. What should she do? What will she do? If she agrees to withhold the book she will lose the opportunity of a lifetime; is she publishes she will ruin many other lives.

The truth about what actually happened in Scardale in 1963 is immensely more complex and unexpected and horrific than George ever dreamed of. Far more people suffered than he knew. But the fact that a man was hanged for a murder he did not commit because of his own actions will haunt him for the rest of his days.

This is a beautifully executed tour de force of a book with a subtlety and intricacy that mark McDermid out as a brilliant writer. I found it compelling reading and wanted to start all over again to seek out the cues I missed first time around. And it’s very rare for me to say that about any book.

 

 

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