TELEVISION / The revenger's tragedy: Thomas Sutcliffe on contradictory evidence in Panorama's study of the US death penalty

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VOCAL (Victims of Crime and Leniency) is an American pressure group, some members of which were seen on Panorama (BBC 1) attending what was presumably a fund-raising picnic. A group of middle-aged women in leisure-wear, they said grace and fussed over the fried chicken. They made an unlikely group of Furies, but everyone at this gathering had lost a relative through brutal crime and they had come together to make sure that somebody paid the ultimate price. It was vengeance in floral prints and it presented John Ware with the first of several problems in his report on the way that America's current passion for the death penalty has led to the execution of juveniles, the mentally ill, and the innocent. Even if you found the serene vindictiveness of these women disturbing, it was impossible to see them as morally inferior to the wretched inhabitants of Death Row - mentally unstable, confused, but insanely brutal too.

Ware's anxiety about the incorporation of vengeance in the American legal system (victims can testify to the jury which decides on the final penalty) seemed oddly misplaced here. Revenge and redress have always been part of the judicial system, however tamed by the formal processes of law, and it wouldn't really make execution any better if the executioner did his job with a grieving and sorrowful heart.

Ware was also at pains to point out that America's current record on executions put it into rather unsavoury international company. 'The leader of the free world,' he noted, 'is inviting comparisons with regimes like Iran and Iraq,' a point he repeated several times. On one level this was true, but it rather skated over the important fact that the United States remains a democracy; their current relish for the death penalty is a direct consequence of an electoral process working with considerable efficiency - as was made clear in the film, judicial officials, governors and Presidential candidates know full well that they had better represent the wishes of their constituents on this matter or face the consequences. The state can decide to be more high-minded than its citizens but only if it decides to ignore their views as well. Paradoxically, for the United States Government to suspend the death penalty it would have to act a little more like Iraq, rather than less.

The film was on more solid ground in demonstrating the injustice of individual cases, from clearly deranged defendents who were deemed fit to stand trial, to innocent prisoners who had received the most cursory defence. Earl Washington, who has a mental age of 10, obligingly confessed to a vicious rape and murder, and was sentenced to death, despite the absence of any corroborating evidence and the presence of forensic evidence which cleared him. His legal-aid lawyer spent just two minutes trying to persuade the jury otherwise.

Most grotesque of all was the revelation that deranged patients are administered with drugs before their execution so that they can fully comprehend that another, lethal, injection is about to be administered. This nicety is an obligation under American law, a collision between the state's punctiliousness and its cruelty which was rather more illuminating than Ware's own contradictions.