BOOK REVIEW / Cosmetics matter more than the execution: 'The Execution Protocol' - Stephen Trombley: Century, 9.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
THIS IS not a book to read on underground trains. Half-way through the first chapter, disgust and horror closed so tightly around me that I had to shut the book and leave the train at the next station. The question is whether these horrors are more moral or physical. Wait until you have finished breakfast, and then listen to Fred Leuchter selling himself: 'If you overload an individual's body with current - more than six amps - you'll cook the meat on his body. It's like meat on an overcooked chicken. If you grab the arm, the flesh will fall right off in your hands. That doesn't mean he felt anything. It's simply not cosmetically the right thing to do.'

Fred is very concerned with cosmetics. He is a self-taught manufacturer of equipment for killing people with. He designs, builds, and installs electric chairs, gallows, and lethal injection machines that have been introduced in five American states. He offers training in their use. He has also collaborated with David Irving, the right- wing historian, in an attempt to prove that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Among the men whom Stephen Trombley met on Death Row while researching this book are some who have committed really terrible crimes. Yet none seems to me to be quite so morally deformed as Fred Leuchter. In fact, the only character almost as repulsive is the Baptist chaplain at Missouri State Penitentiary, who consoles himself with the thought that the men being killed do not really exist: 'I look on the spiritual side of things, as a man who believes there is an eternity, who believes there is a life after death. Our actions and our decisions in this world are going to make a determination as to where our boat is in the next world, and I look at a man such as him, and I see that he is stripped of all spirituality. He is practically a man who has no soul. Of the five executions, my perception has been that they have been hollow: void of spirituality . . . we've had a run of atheists and Muslims.'

The doctor at this jail is a Filipino whose name none of the inmates or guards can pronounce; he has reciprocal difficulties with the English language. None the less, the purpose-built Missouri State Penitentiary is a huge improvement on the previous Death Row, where the inhabitants were locked in their cells underground for 23 hours a day. In the new prison there are televisions in every cell, which allow the authorities to beam in pornographic videos while executions take place.

That is the sort of pragmatic touch that distinguishes the Missouri executions. In other states, the barbarism of the death penalty is naked. In Florida, for example, one man burst into flames in the electric chair because the man responsible for wiring it up could not himself change a light bulb without assistance. This was all duly and decorously concealed in the official report.

Trombley's book is an account of the sanitisation of killing. As the instincts of American voters grow closer and closer to those of a lynch mob, there is money to be made in disinfecting the process. The men who actually kill (as opposed to those such as Leuchter, who dance attendance around them and talk of hygiene) emerge as sympathetic characters, almost genial, with expansive stomachs. They took Trombley fishing. He writes about them in a clear, neutral manner.

It is a considerable tribute to his style that the facts seem to burst through the prose, leaving no trace of the author in my mind. He befriended one man in particular, who had killed a stranger in a caravan park. The man believed the stranger was hassling him as a result of a dope deal that had gone wrong; the stranger, in his turn, believed that the murderer had been sent out by his girlfriend's husband. In their struggle, a gun went off. Bad defence lawyers and an ambitious DA did the rest.

Trombley's friend had then befriended a biker who got God in jail and married an equally religious cocktail waitress. After he had been strapped to a hospital trolley and had three poisons injected into him by Fred Leuchter's machine, she dug up the corpse to say goodbye. She found that his orifices had been plugged and cathetered. It is cosmetically better that way.