Sunday, November 9

Reflections on the death penalty

The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one's time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all. – H.L Mencken (US editor and essayist, 1880-1956)

So firing squads have ended the lives of the three Bali murderers.

Why am I not more depressed? Why do I feel so little dismay at their execution? Why am I now disturbed by the thought I may betray beliefs I have held since my teenage years?

The quote which leads this post is not strictly apposite to judicial execution. But its basic premise, that we must not suspend our moral beliefs when the cause becomes unpalatable, is relevant. (I had, in fact, stashed away Mencken's quote in case I ever felt the need to discuss again that despicable turd, David Hicks.)

I'd assumed the fight against the death penalty had long been won in civilised societies like Australia.

But a bit over a year ago, I was at the monthly meeting of a club for retired business and professional men. Our speaker was a retired police inspector, and when he said he still believed in the death penalty, a murmur of assent went around the room. Out there, support for the death penalty remains, although it's hard to assess how strong it is.

But even lifelong opponents of the death penalty may be having trouble arguing against the execution of the Bali murderers. They killed 202 people and maimed hundreds more (and it's understandable that Australians should feel strongly, because 88 of the dead and many of the mutilated were Australians).

The only regret the murderers expressed was that a few Muslims had died in the blasts. The images often showed them smiling, even gloating.

One can make many rational, practical arguments against judicially imposed death penalties. Very occasionally our juries and judges will convict an innocent man – and it's hard to make amends once you've hanged him.

When I was a young journalist on The West Australian, a serial killer terrorised Perth. Eric Edgar Cooke began his crimes in 1958 and continued until police caught him in 1963.

He confessed to more than 200 thefts, five hit-and-run offences against young women, five more attacks on women asleep in their beds. In all, he attacked 22 people and killed eight.

But in his confession, he claimed he'd committed two murders for which other men had been convicted. I remember we used to giggle at how convenient it was – the police wiped several hundred unsolved crimes off their books as they accepted all of his confession. All, that is, except for the two murders where they'd already put men away.

But it really was nothing to laugh about. A deaf-mute man, Daryl Beamish, was already serving a 15-year sentence for the 1959 murder of Jillian Brewer, and John Button was serving five years for the manslaughter of his girlfriend Rosemary Anderson.

Attempts to have their convictions overturned were not helped on October 26, 1964, when the hangman killed a key witness – Eric Edgar Cooke, the last man to be executed in Fremantle Prison.

Beamish served his 15 years, but in 2005 the conviction was quashed after evidence indicated Cooke probably was the killer. Thank God he hadn't been hanged. Similarly, Button's conviction was quashed in 2002.

The WA police and judiciary can take no credit for reversing this gross miscarriage of justice – it was almost solely the work of a Perth journalist, Estelle Blackburn, who was later honoured with the Medal of the Order of Australia and a Walkley Award.

Indeed, as some recent cases have demonstrated, Western Australia appears to be one of the few jurisdictions in which it is still considered acceptable for a crown prosecutor to fail to reveal evidence which may be favorable to the accused.

There are other rational arguments. Here are some: The death penalty doesn't deter crime. The executioners are likely to become brutalised or suffer trauma. If it's vengeance (rather than justifiable punishment), putting men to death must diminish us all.

And the claim that established execution methods – hanging, firing squad, pistol bullet into the brain, lethal injection or gassing, electric shock, guillotine – are quick and relatively painless is, at best, dubious.

Also, if we welcome the Bali murderers' executions, we put ourselves in a weak position to argue against death penalties against Australian drug mules in Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia.

But the issue goes beyond rational argument about the pros and cons of capital punishment. It is, fundamentally, a moral issue. So, as we contemplate our responses to the Bali murderers' executions, it's hard to avoid examining how we form our moral beliefs. Do we have the right to kill, or to endorse the killing, of men in cold blood, even with due judicial process?

For the past few days, I've been out on the motor cycle, touring wonderfully scenic country and finding new roads (I'll tell you about them later). But when I've picked up a paper in a cafe or watched TV news above the bar, I've had to confront my responses to the then-impending executions.

Yesterday morning, I opened The Weekend Australian and noted on Page 4 a longish comment piece by journalist Paul Toohey in which he agonises over the same questions. I empathise with him, although I feel he has trouble isolating the core issue – do we have the moral right to kill criminals in cold blood?

Toohey is a fine journalist, and his perceptive reports have given The Australian's readers a better understanding of issues involving the Federal Government intervention in Northern Territory indigenous communities. But at one stage, he appears to argue that because he cannot stand the sight of blood, and would not be able to pull the trigger or the trapdoor lever himself, the death penalty is wrong.

I think I'm made of sterner stuff. If my conscience persuaded me that a man should die for his crimes, and if absolutely no-one else could be found to do the deed, I could commit the execution. I oppose the death penalty not because I'm squeamish, but because I believe it's morally wrong.

How do we form our moral beliefs? Do we soak up the attitudes of fellow lefties, or on the other side, of conservatives sipping gin and tonics in a gentlemen's club (which may be where some judges reinforce their attitudes)?

Do we pray for guidance in understanding God's will? It doesn't seem to help much. The Christian community ranges from the supporters of departing US President George W. Bush, a devout believer who signed off on many executions as Governor of Texas, to those Christians who have devoted their lives to the abolition of capital punishment.

Perhaps, too, we should remind ourselves: The Bali murderers also believed they were carrying out God's will.

Notes: The crimes of Eric Edgar Cooke form a central element of Robert Drewe's book, The Shark Net, and the case is described well in this Wikipedia article.

Paul Toohey's comment can be read here.

Since this post first went up, the Australian Government, with the support of the Opposition, has announced it will step up an international campaign to abolish capital punishment. Here's the ABC report.

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