BOOK REVIEW / Needlework without a prick of conscience: 'The Execution Protocol' - Stephen Trombley: Century, 9.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
'THE Missouri Protocol' may sound like a thriller by Robert Ludlum, but it is in fact the name given to the set of procedures governing the manner in which the death sentence is carried out in that state. In researching this book, Stephen Trombley 'became a tourist in another America, a netherworld where men wait for their appointment with death, and where another group of men wait to execute them'.

Despite the publisher's lurid claims, the book contains little that is controversial or shocking. Trombley has deliberately opted to examine the pro-death lobby's best-case scenario. Potosi Correctional Centre, which houses Missouri's death row, is an air- conditioned, state-of-the-art institution whose 300 inmates enjoy conditions unimaginable for any prisoner in this country. Executions are carried out by the most 'sanitary' and least spectacular method, lethal injection.

This merely allows the real horror of state- sanctioned killing to emerge all the more clearly. Trombley is aware of the danger of the sort of voyeuristic appeal with which Quilty tried to stay his own execution in Lolita ('I can arrange for you to attend executions, not everybody knows that the chair is painted yellow'), but he is also less concerned with the Grand Guignol aspects of capital punishment than with its human - or inhuman - face. America being America, he was accorded every facility by the Missouri prison service, and the core of the book lies in a series of interviews with inmates and members of the execution team.

There are no startling revelations, although there are some telling details, such as that on the night of an execution the prisoners are shown pornographic videos to distract their attention. The staff, mainly ex-military men, take a 'task-oriented' view of their work and pride themselves on their professionalism: 'It's a collective thing. Everyone is properly trained. They know what they're supposed to do, and take care of business.' In other words, they are only following orders - orders that are endorsed by an overwhelming majority of their fellow citizens.

Trombley works hard to put over the idea that he is not taking sides between staff and inmates, but the slanted editing and patronising tone of these sections is in complete contrast to the treatment accorded the prisoners. Indeed, the most forceful argument against the death penalty is the way it inevitably casts mass murderers and contract killers, some of whom 'had tortured their victims before killing them', in the beau role of helpless victims of a protracted, arbitrary and implacable judicial murder.

Protracted and arbitrary it certainly is. The condemned may spend 10 years or more going through various lengthy appeals procedures, and factors such as which state has jurisdiction, the quality of legal representation on either side, and even the prevailing political climate may weigh more heavily than the actual offence. Worst of all are the episodes in which the execution procedure is put into effect and then halted at the last minute because of a Supreme Court decision, which is then itself reversed a few months later.

The publishers claim excitedly that Trombley's book 'will change the way we think about capital punishment'. This seems unlikely. What it does do is expose the myth that judicial killing is compatible with civilised values as long as it is handled right. In this respect, the most memorable testimony occurs in an interview with Fred A Leuchter, who designs and supplies gas chambers, electric chairs, lethal injection machines and gallows, and would probably knock you up a pit and a pendulum on the latest scientific principles if the price was right. Fred apparently holds the view that the Holocaust was a myth, so it is rather ironical that he himself is a prime example of the mentality which made it possible.