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The Independent Culture
Early in Murder in Room 1215 (C4) someone offered a nice example of the Lucan Defence. A gentleman in a Garrick Club tie declared of Krishna Maharaj that it was "impossible that he could have murdered someone". The Lucan Defence, not a complex one, goes something like this - "Knew the chap well. Splendid fellow. Always stood his round. Must be some mistake." Unfortunately, the Lucan Defence doesn't go down very well in Florida, where Mr Maharaj has been on death row for eight years, awaiting execution for the double murder of two business associates. "We got some constipated Brits from Channel 4 here wanting us to discuss the death penalty," said a radio shock-jock. "What's to discuss? Fry their ass."

And it's true that, at first glance, Mr Maharaj's case does not look a strong one, given that his associates in America weren't the sort of fellows you would bump into in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. Actually they looked as if they had come direct from a Caribbean production of Guys and Dolls, in particular Eddie Dames and Lucky Five, two dapper Bermudan "businessmen" involved in unspecified import-export trade. But then you can't execute someone just because his business activities look a little dodgy.

Oh, sorry. I wasn't paying attention there. You can be executed in the United States for looking a little dodgy. Indeed you can even be executed, as in one recent case, if the prosecution believes you're innocent - because the pressure of public opinion on elected judges and officials means that almost nobody wants to be seen putting the brakes on the rush to judgement. And unless you're a millionaire, defence lawyers aren't exactly assiduous, either through incompetence or indifference: one black defendant was assigned an Imperial Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan as his defence lawyer. (Mr Maharaj is fortunate to have come to the attention of Clive Stafford Smith, a dogged British lawyer specialising in death-row defences).

You learnt some of the background details, I suspect, because Murder in Room 1215 was aware that it couldn't mount the full-out forensic defence which is the usual expectation in such documentaries (though it did follow the conventional structure - prosecution case first, so that everyone thinks he did it, then the missing defence second, so that you're on the recoil as the credits roll).

You ended up unconvinced of Mr Maharaj's guilt, which was quite enough, but in the absence of absolute proof of his innocence it was important to establish a general principle - that it has become politically more expedient to deliver executions than to deliver justice. And some of those who have been hurried to their final appointments were almost certainly wrongly convicted. To date 58 prisoners have been released from death row because later evidence has proved their innocence. Fifty-eight - not quite the "isolated, tragic" case that execution junkies concede might occasionally slip through the net. They didn't count the ones they hadn't caught in time.

The only explanation for Oh Dr Beeching! (BBC1) is that part of BBC1 has been given over to a Steam Comedy Preservation Society. Simply for the love of it these dedicated enthusiasts devote their leisure hours to reconstructing derelict laughter engines - scrabbling through junk shops for long-neglected components, polishing up rusted gag-lines until they gleam like new. The result will bring a tear to the eye of anyone fond of vintage jokes. It may have been crude, the engineering on those old comedies, but it was certainly built to last. "Ethel will give you one when she gets here," says Paul Shane. "Oh, will she?" replies Stephen Lewis (recovered by a volunteer from an abandoned episode of On The Buses), "I asked her to give me one last night!" The audience roared as if the last 40 years had never happened.

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