Twenty Years Ago Today: Whose Death Penalty Is It Anyway?

nooseTwenty years ago today, a stay of execution was given in the case of two absolutely vile men. Lincoln Guerra and Brian Wallen had been convicted of terrible crimes. They had attacked a young family with machetes and knives, raping Leslie Ann Girod before slitting the throats of her and her seven month old baby. Her husband, Brian, was left severely wounded in the attack, but managed to survive and crawl away for help. His testimony condemned the two killers, and there was no doubt as to their guilt. This terrible crime happened in 1987, on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. Such a senseless murder carries an automatic death sentence on the island, though the authorities there were usually loath to actually hang anyone, and generally kept condemned men on death row - until the week before this, when the commissioner of police said that they should break some necks to bring the crime rate down. Guerra and Wallen were given no more than three days notice that their sentence was to be carried out.

They would surely have hanged, but for one small detail in the legal apparatus of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. They had once been part of the British Empire, and still retained a part of the British legal system as their final authority on matters of law. Which is to say that their court of final appeal was the Queen herself. She rarely troubles herself with such details, instead delegating them to "The Queen in Council", which means the Privy Council, which means... well, basically, a bunch of judges and lawyers in London who have the final say over legal matters in islands that are otherwise completely independent.

Lawyers for the condemned men scrambled to get in touch with London, and the judges there took a dim view of the matter, granting a stay of execution. It wasn't that they were trying to prevent the hangings altogether (since, after all, they were ruling on Trinidadian law, not British law), but more that the sentence was to be applied so suddenly, with so little warning - a contravention of the mens' constitutional rights.

The word came down from London only 95 minutes before the executions were to take place. If it weren't for the fact that London was four hours ahead of Trinidad, giving the British judges a chance to wake up and convene meetings even as the executioners were preparing for hangings at dawn, the two men would probably have been dead before anyone in London even knew about it.

This strange state of affairs persists to this very day, and it's not just Trinidad and Tobago that are affected - most of the former Caribbean possessions of Britain also have to defer to British judges. London has been called on to make rulings many times since, and - despite the British aversion to capital punishment, demonstrated in the UK Parliament earlier in 1994 - have even allowed executions to go ahead in some cases.

Guerra and Wallen survived their brush with death, and their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment in 1995. Wallen has since died in prison, while Guerra has sued the authorities for beatings inflicted while in jail. The Privy Council holds that while the death penalty may be legal in Trinidad & Tobago, keeping people on death row for more than five years constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, so most death sentences end up not being carried out. Nevertheless, capital punishment is still very popular as a policy with the public, so there's little chance that it'll be abolished any time soon.


Twenty Years Ago Today: The Last Gasp of the Hangman's Noose

noose30n-1-webTwenty years ago today, the Criminal Justice and Public Order bill came before Parliament for debate. It was one of those major pieces of legislation that threatens to change (and sometimes succeeds in changing) British life forever. But in this case, the precise subject under debate was the reversal of a previous change in British life: the abolition of the death penalty. Technically, the death penalty still existed, at least until 1998 when treason, piracy with violence, and several crimes available only to members of the armed forces were made into non-capital offences. But no actual executions for any offence of any kind had taken place since 1964. The death penalty was, for all intents and purposes, history. Except that some people, particularly backbenchers from the Conservative Party, wished that it were otherwise.

All the arguments for and against were trotted out, as they so often had been. But the one that really held the most weight was the fallibility of the justice system. It was becoming clear in the 90's just how many miscarriages of justice had taken place over the last few decades, many of them of the highest profile: the Guildford Four, found guilty of the Guildford pub bombings of 1974, and the Birmingham Six, found guilty of the Birmingham pub bombings, also in 1974. Both groups had their convictions quashed after they were declared unsafe in 1991 - but if there had been a death penalty, they would almost certainly have hanged long before that.

The Tory backbenchers moaned and muttered that an "unsafe" conviction was not the same as innocence, doing all they could to imply that these men were guilty after all, and deserved to rot on the gallows. But John Major's government led the way in confounding them, with the front bench voting heavily to keep the death penalty off the books. In the end, two amendments were defeated: one for police murders (with a majority of 197) and one for any murders at all (with a majority of 244).

(The fact that the issue was still considered a matter of live debate is reinforced by the fact that there was still a working gallows at HMP Wandsworth until it was dismantled later in 1994. The execution chamber has now been converted into a staff tea room).

And so you can trust that if the police and CPS convict you of murder by mistake, you do at least have the next few decades to prove your innocence. But beware: a new drive to restore the death penalty is in the works. At the present moment it's had no more than its first reading in the Commons, and the date for the second reading has yet to be announced. With any luck, the bill will perish before it gets anywhere near a final vote. We can but hope that our present government is of the same resolve as twenty years ago.

Twenty Years Ago Today: News Roundup

Christmas Day 1824 no foreign news of material importance in the Manchester Guardian Twenty years ago today, it was a Sunday. And a bit of a slow day for historical events. Well, it was actually a pretty hideous day for the 200 people who drowned when a ship sank off Thailand (most of them Thais who had been working illegally in Myanmar), but sadly this is not one of those stories that English-language newspapers (and ultimately the English-language internet) record in any great detail.

So let's have a quick look at a broader range of stories that the papers are mentioning today...

  • The three surviving Beatles are being offered £2.5m to appear in a festival this summer at the Isle of Wight. This offer may have been inspired by reports that McCartney, Harrison and Starr were getting back in the studio - but as it turned out, this had more to do with the Anthology documentary series than any original music.
  • Gerry Adams went on ITV's Walden programme to say that Sinn Fein might not join in with last year's Downing Street Declaration - and if that's the case, then the hoped-for ceasefire from the IRA will fall through. Adams wanted the UK government to do more to persuade the Unionist side to accept the possibility of Irish unity, which the UK government was refusing to do. We'll be coming back to this story later in the year.
  • In southern Sudan, 100,000 people were on the move, fleeing refugee camps due to continued fighting and random attacks from both the government and SPLA rebels. This part of the world is no stranger to conflict, although in recent years it's been successful in breaking away from Sudan to form a new country, South Sudan - which has then resulted in renewed fighting over internal conflicts.
  • In South Africa, the process of moving towards a post-apartheid state continues. There are elections coming soon, but some groups are still not happy; King Goodwill Zwelithini of the Zulus made a statement in Durban insisting that they have the right to their own country, while thousands of Zulus (many in traditional clothes and carrying ceremonial spears) demonstrated on the streets outside.
  • John Thanos, a murderer awaiting execution in Maryland, has given the go-ahead for his death to be videotaped so that another inmate can argue that the death penalty is a cruel and unusual punishment. As a result, Maryland speedily amended their laws to give condemned prisoners the right to choose lethal injection rather than the gas chamber - so speedily, in fact, that Thanos was able to select this option for his own execution on May 17th.

Many thanks go to Coventry Libraries for making newspaper archives available to anyone with an internet connection and a library card (although sadly this means that I can't link directly to the archives). I've found this rather useful for this little series, although I do tend to get bogged down reading articles that I'm not even going to use. It's just too interesting!