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Execution, Crime and Punishment.

The State’s execution in Texas of Karla Faye Tucker caught the attention of the worldwide media, and drew attention to the subject of “crime and punishment”, as opposed to the more usual focus on “law and order”.

The US model of giving convicted murderers a significant-part-of-life in jail and then executing them is clearly the worst of both worlds, and in excess of that to which they were originally sentenced. Admittedly, much of the delay can be attributed to an extremely protracted appeals procedure; but more on that later. In this particular case, an irony is that the woman had actually during the period of imprisonment become an asset to society; and there now seems — as shown by her demeanour at the time of execution, when she had nothing to lose by dropping it if it was a pretence — to be no doubt that she had genuinely reformed. She became active in trying to dissuade others from repeating the mistakes she had made. But she was killed anyway….

That it happened in the case of an attractive, intelligent and articulate “media-friendly” white woman, despite domestic and worldwide appeals for clemency by many people including Pat Robertson and the Pope, suggests the prospect for the rest of America’s death-row inmates — especially those who are black, male or deficient in media brownie-points — is pretty bleak.

The very long gap between sentencing and execution (Tucker murdered in 1983) is arguably the sickest bit of all, because some people do change over such a length of time, but that does not seem to count in whether they are then executed — yet character evaluation probably played some part in deciding whether to sentence them to death in the first place. New evidence or legal trickery may afford grounds for appeal, but it seems that genuine reform does not.

Under the prevailing US system the sole intention behind sentencing would appear to be punitive; and in that context, when looked at coldly and objectively, the argument that an execution soon after sentencing might be no more inhumane than permanent incarceration is perfectly rational. One’s views on the matter are influenced by a subjective stance on the morality of State executions; but there also has to be a consideration of what society is actually trying to do, or should be trying to do, with people when it locks them away.

Scenes like those in Texas where a crowd waited outside the jail to cheer the execution of someone against whom they had no personal claim for vengeance, for the killing of people whom they did not actually know or give a damn about anyway, can leave one rather depressed about the state of humanity. It may be that they enjoy the sense of having self-righteous and unrestrained power over another person, albeit at second-hand. Another disturbing aspect was the argument, presented in all seriousness, that executing such prisoners was the “right” thing to do, simply because it cost less than keeping them alive.

When one considers the media-enhanced pro-authoritarian indications of opinion polls in this country, and the self-serving “seen to be doing something” legislative quick-fixes by the politicians in response to such opinions, it would seem rather complacent to assume such attitudes are exclusive to the USA….

The execution of Tucker concentrated attention, however briefly, on issues of crime and punishment which are equally pertinent to the situation in Britain. It may be that execution is the only solution where some people are concerned — that is a matter for debate. Opinion polls suggest that a majority of the British people would like the death penalty to be re-introduced (whether this enthusiasm extends to friends and family has not yet been ascertained). There are some offenders who would not qualify for execution, but whose extended or permanent incarceration is essential on the grounds of public safety; but there are many more whose offences are less serious. Given that they will at some point be released back into society, should we or should we not proceed on the premise that some can be reformed, and allocate resources accordingly? It is a fact that in response to media-backed popular demand for “law and order” the UK prison population continues to expand — more so than that of our European partners — and perhaps the time has come for a re-appraisal of what we are really trying to do.

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