Hazel McHaffie

Death Row

Assisted dying … again!

In spite of everything that’s happening in Parliament this week – unprecedented machinations relating to Brexit: rebellions … the prime minister publicly losing his slim majority … the house voting not to go along with his plans … grandees being slung out of the political party they’ve survived for decades … breathless historically significant happenings – in spite of all that, assisted dying has hit the headlines once again.

It must be a surreal feeling, mustn’t it, counting down the days till you die? Rather like life on Death Row.

Sixty-five-year-old Richard Selley is doing just that. Born and bred in the Westcountry (my homeland), he taught Economics at Loretto School in Musselburgh (a few miles from where I live), and now lives in Perthshire. Tomorrow he will die far away in Switzerland.

Four years ago he was diagnosed with MND, and since then he’s been campaigning for a change in the law to allow people in the terminal stages of illness to end their lives peacefully and with dignity. In spite of his struggles with movement and speech, he has managed to write a book, Death sits on my Shoulder, and maintain a blog, Moments with MND.

In a letter to MSPs he makes this heartfelt plea:
‘If the choice of an assisted death was available to me here in Scotland so many of my worries would have been eased and my remaining time would have been spent in better ways than burdensome and complex admin. Instead, that precious time would be spent with my wife, my family and my friends. The current laws (and lack of laws) around assisted dying in Scotland are cruel, outdated and discriminatory.’

And indeed, Mr Selley hugely regrets the necessity to go to Switzerland for this service as he explains here.

Most of this effort has been below the radar, but now, at the eleventh hour, his case has been reported on the national news; during that precious time when he is spending his final week quietly at home with his wife and family and friends, doing ordinary things – like watching box sets, sharing memories. All for the last time. Knowing. Knowing, that tomorrow – Friday 6 September 2019 – he will take that lethal dose of medication, say his final goodbyes. Tomorrow.

He is quick to express appreciation for the ‘outstanding care’ he’s received from the NHS, but he now faces the end phase of this cruel illness, and has decided that enough is enough: ‘As I enter the final stages of this journey, and the prospect of total paralysis, I have decided that I would prefer to leave this world before too much longer. To use the terminology of Brexit, I have had my own little referendum, and decided that I wish to leave rather than remain. I don’t wish to crash out in an undignified manner, so I am hoping to negotiate a withdrawal agreement that will not require a long transition period.’

On top of the mental anguish – which he relates on his blog – it will cost him about £10,000, and he’s very aware that not everyone could afford such a step. He also has to be fit enough to fly, which means taking action earlier than he might if he were able to stay in this country. He can no longer swallow, so he’s practising the movements required to administer the poison via his feeding tube. And on top of all that he’s adamant he must make all the arrangements himself to protect his wife Elaine from prosecution. A tough call indeed.

As he says himself, ‘I think if those who oppose assisted dying could spend just one day in my shoes they would change their view.’ In reality, opponents of legalising assisted dying express enormous sympathy for Richard Selley and others in similar situations, but they say they have to consider wider societal harms, and the potential for abuse and exploitation. Elderly and dependent people could so easily feel under pressure to end their lives rather than being a burden on their families or society. The right to die could soon segue into a duty to die.

In spite of huge advances in palliative care, it’s estimated that eleven terminally ill people die a painful death every week in Scotland. It’s a significant problem. Of course, proposals for a change in the law have already come before Holyrood twice; on both occasions failing to get parliamentary backing, in spite of the powerful voice and image of Margo MacDonald MSP who had Parkinson’s Disease herself and died in 2014. To be fair, public as well as professional opinion has changed following a series of campaigns and high profile cases, but are we ready for the law to catch up? Can such a delicately nuanced matter even be captured in legal terms?

We should all be indebted to people like Richard Selley who use precious resources – energy and time – to bring these ethical dilemmas so vividly and urgently to our attention. I do hope he has the peaceful death he has worked so tirelessly for.

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Death row drama

Fast-paced … action packed … unputdownable … chilling … compelling … well crafted … the reviews give Last Witness by Jillianne Hoffman plenty of hype.

Plus, the author has impeccable credentials for writing a book about criminal trials and police investigations. She was herself an Assistant State Attorney between 1991 and 1996, and a Legal Advisor for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement until 2001, so she knows what she’s talking about. I set out with high hopes. But as I read, a little voice niggled. Is she perhaps rather too anxious to ensure the reader knows how everything works, what everything means. I was personally criticised for letting my academic background show through the mesh early on in my metamorphosis into novelist, so it’s something I’m specially attuned to.

Having said that, the book is centred on a fascinating premise: just how far should a person go to ensure justice is done? Is it ever justifiable to lie in the interests of the greater good, to protect innocent people? My kind of ethical challenges, huh? And Hoffman creates enough bad apples to make one suspicious of everyone in this story! She also challenges the reader to ask, What would I have done in these circumstances?  Could I live with a guilty conscience? OK, I’m listening.

A summary of the story:
Three years ago a serial rapist, William Bantling, was sent to death row by Florida’s Assistant State Attorney, CJ Townsend, for the torture and murder of eleven young woman.
Now three policemen closely involved in Bantling’s conviction have been brutally murdered in ritualistic killings conveying a powerful message. No gruesome details are spared in the telling! CJ knew all three victims. She also knows the shocking secret they took to their graves. Now she is the last witness to what they all conspired in.
Someone out there knows the truth and will stop at nothing to prevent it being revealed. Will she be the next to die? Who exactly is this second monster and what motive could he possibly have for such barbarity?
As new facts emerge, serious doubts are being raised about the safety of Bantling’s conviction, enough to demand he be brought from death row to the very court that convicted him, to face again the young woman who sent him to his death. A woman he once raped, terrorised and left for dead. He’s a man with scores to settle and allies in dark places. She’s a woman haunted day and night by the past and the future.

It’s a dark barbaric tale scraping the barrel of human depravity and psychological manipulation. Maybe it was because I read it during a ten-hour train journey, but I found it rather weighed down with technical detail which slowed the momentum of the story for someone not familiar with the American judiciary system.

In places too, I found the style of writing rather repetitive, and hampered by the density of the material. For me it needed space to breathe. But I loved the description of criminal defense attorney, Lester Franklin Barquet who ‘was old school himself, dressed to the nines in southern manners and a three-piece suit.’

It’s a thriller and part of my ongoing education in how to achieve suspense and tension, but this one doesn’t make it into my exemplar section.

 

 

 

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The Crying Tree

Daniel Robbins has been on death row for nineteen years (half of his life) when the execution warrant arrives.

29 October 2004. One minute after midnight.

29 October is my birthday, so the date instantly hooked me in. When we’re young we count down the days – or sleeps! – to such dates; imagine counting down to your own death, or that of someone you love.

Robbins had a troubled upbringing, in and out of care, and there’s now no one in the outside world who’s in contact with him. But he remembers one thing his real mother taught him: Truth is not necessarily what people want to hear, and now he’s in prison because he failed to tell the truth – the truth about how, in 1985, he came to shoot dead 15-year-old Shep Stanley. Shep’s father is Deputy Sheriff Nathaniel Stanley (Nate), and it was he who found the fatally wounded boy. He cradled Shep while he bled to death, and his testimony helped put the 19-year-old shooter in the state penitentiary, and on death row.

Shep’s mother, Irene, is beside herself, depressed and suffocated by pain. Shep was the apple of her eye, her world. Even her daughter, Bliss, feels left out. Believing she couldn’t cope with hearing the truth about what really happened on the night of her son’s murder, Nate keeps the secret for nineteen years. Until, that is, he discovers his wife has been secretly writing to the condemned man for years … that she’s forgiven him. Incensed beyond control he blurts out the truth. The revelation catapults Irene into a frenzy of activity which takes her all the way to the window opposite her son’s killer.

The book, The Crying Tree ( a perfect title) is cleverly structured. The first section flips between the years leading up to the murder and its aftermath (1983-1990) – and the days immediately after the death warrant comes through (the first two days of October 2004). The second part picks up at 1995 and takes us up to 7 October 2004. The third and fourth sections inch us ominously through the remaining days of October 2004 as the condemned man counts down the rest of his mortal life.

I didn’t see the twist at the end of section 3 coming – always a thrill! – and Irene’s reaction to the truth Nate reveals is powerfully captured in some brilliant passages describing her whole life disintegrating (P247-8), beginning with ‘Irene drove south on Highway 3, speeding past river towns like Neunert and Grand Tower. Headlights made her squint, trains made her stop, and the words her husband had said made her shake with fury … she had no idea what to do with Nate’s confession.’

Alongside the story of the Stanleys’ life and tragedies, we walk beside the man responsible for masterminding the actual execution, Superintendent Tab Mason. He’s a damaged soul himself after years of terrible abuse. He feels the weight of his responsibility acutely – it’s not a job, it’s an ‘ordeal’ – and he has real issues with the notion of forgiveness. Execution is a rare occurrence in Oregon; the last one was seven years earlier, and this is Mason’s first case being ‘in the driving seat’. ‘We’re talking about a man’s life, and I won’t be tolerating any talk that may lead someone to believe we are in any way eager to take on this job.’  He’s determined that every man jack involved in any way, is prepared for this. ‘There are thresholds on the road to killing someone … everyone, from officer to cleanup crew, had to figure out whether or not he had it in him to cross over that line.’

But his careful planning and preparation is thrown into chaos when the murdered man’s mother writes to him … when she arrives seeking mercy … when her daughter supports her – a woman who is herself a criminal prosecutor who’s ‘probably put more men to death than he had sitting in his entire unit‘! It’s a ‘compellingly outrageous‘ situation to be in.

The author of this superb book, Naseem Rakha, an acclaimed journalist, doesn’t shirk the big questions either. The rightness of capital punishment. The Biblical understanding of Do Not Kill. Religion and homosexuality. The meaning and consequences of forgiveness. How grief affects people. Punishment and imprisonment. Nature versus nurture. Weighty questions all.

And her command of language is fabulous. I Iove the idea of
– a face ‘buttered with sympathy’ or ‘buffed of expression and the eyes drained of color’, of – a man running to ‘get as far away from himself as possible’.
 – the women in a backwater, ‘their long flannel shirts covering up what gravity had claimed’.
– the people in the tavern ‘strung out on a line waiting for life to turn better’.

Her masterly handling of suspense and conflict, particularly in the chambers where the deed will be/is done, chills the spine. I experienced a CT procedure recently which necessitated everyone else leaving the room leaving me alone in the tunnel with an IV infusion to automatically shoot dye into my veins and thence into my heart, while a robotic disembodied voice warned me it was coming, and my body reacted strangely to the substance. It felt weirdly isolating. And I could see parallels. Only, in my case, I lived to recall the experience!

The Crying Tree is no run-of-the-mill miscarriage of justice story, no who-really-done-it. This is a tale that gets deep inside the heart of a family torn apart by the murder of a beloved and talented son, an act that forever changes the meaning and cohesion of their lives and relationships. Some of the attitudes and language make us cringe today in the UK, but this was the US in the 2000s, and it’s a salutary reminder of how prejudice, ignorance and intolerance can ruin lives. Shep’s mother ends up realising she failed her son, but ‘We all make mistakes … Every one of us. And we all pay. One way or another, we all pay.’

A masterpiece from a hugely talented writer.

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