I have watched six people die. It’s time for America to end the death penalty

The history books are always ultimately our judge. But how many people must die before this savage practice is halted?

Clive Stafford Smith
Thursday 07 October 2021 19:33

Why the death penalty isn’t working for America

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I have watched six people die in front of me. All of them I knew well, as human beings. None had a fatal illness; they were simply slated for death by the US government.

Two died in the gas chamber, with Zyklon B, the nasty name given to the cyanide previously used in the Holocaust. Two died in the electric chair, with 2,400 volts of electricity running from the skull to the ankle, the most overtly savage way imaginable to kill someone. And two on the lethal injection gurney, a deceptively unpleasant way to die – else why would the second injection be a paralytic agent, given to prevent the witnesses from watching a man die in agony in front of them?

I went to the US in 1978 to battle capital punishment. I have spent a lifetime opposing it. When people ask me what I think the strongest argument is against executions, I tell them they are asking the wrong question: of course it’s not a deterrent; of course it’s a grotesque waste of money; of course we make “mistakes” (even I managed to get an innocent person executed – Edward Earl Johnson, whose death was immortalised in the BBC documentary Fourteen Days in May); of course it’s ironic that we kill people who (we think) have killed people in order to show that killing people is wrong.

The better question, then, is why should we do it? Each time I have watched a human die it has been midnight, in the depths of darkness, as we are fundamentally ashamed of ourselves. Each time, I have come out of that dreadful, terrible chamber and looked up at the stars. I have asked myself: “Did that awful event really make the world a better, more civilised place?”

The history books are always ultimately our judge. They do not look kindly upon our earlier notion that we should burn women at the stake because we were convinced that they were witches. They will not make heroes of the misguided barbarians who thought that we should ceremonially – with our “execution protocol” – sacrifice a fellow human being on the altar of hatred.

When I first ventured onto the battlefield of capital punishment, more than 40 years ago now, I thought the world would come to its senses well within four decades. I believed I would be forced to tilt at another moral windmill. I was wrong. And the numbers tell me to fear the future.

Of course we will win in the end, but right now there are more than 2,500 people on Death Row in the USA, and we are killing them at a rate of fewer than 20 people a year. At this rate it would take 125 years to kill them all, even if we never imposed another death sentence. Life expectancy in a US prison does not render this realistic.

There are other numbers that make me quake. The first is the number six. At least six members of the US Supreme Court think that execution is a state’s right, presumably preserved by the Tenth Amendment: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. When – in the final thrashing days of an executive dinosaur – president Donald Trump decided to kill 13 people, it was the case that every time a federal court granted a stay of execution, the “Supreme Court six” lifted it. All 13 people were killed – the mentally disabled prisoner, the traumatised woman, the man protesting his innocence.

So this means that, while executions have long been held back by a fragile dam, the “six” are the latter-day dambusters. There has been an inversion in the course of my career. In 1972, the Supreme Court was ahead of the nation. In Furman v Georgia, the court tried to abolish the death penalty for ever, but a vehement populist response overrode the old white men who had tentatively proposed such an idea. Since then, the world has turned. The American people are ever more opposed to executions, but the regressive court decrees otherwise.

We will eventually kill off the death penalty, if not in my lifetime then shortly thereafter. Its proponents will join Caligula and the Medici in an historical hall of shame. But how many people must die before we get there?

Clive Stafford Smith is an Anglo-American lawyer and the director of the UK nonprofit the 3D Centre.

The Independent and the nonprofit Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ) have launched a joint campaign calling for an end to the death penalty in the US. The RBIJ has attracted more than 150 well-known signatories to its Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty declaration – with The Independent being the latest on the list. We join high-profile executives such as Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson as part of this initiative, and are making a pledge to highlight the injustices of the death penalty in our coverage.

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