Death penalty still wrong

THERE are many reasons why the death penalty is a bad idea.Many of them have been well explored and expressed by the American singer-songwriter Steve Earle, who happens to be one of my musical (and political) heroes.

THERE are many reasons why the death penalty is a bad idea.

Many of them have been well explored and expressed by the American singer-songwriter Steve Earle, who happens to be one of my musical (and political) heroes.

He questions how a person who throws the switch of the electric chair can consider themselves any better than the killer they are executing.

He examines, in the excellent song Ellis Unit One, the mental and emotional effect on a prison warder working on Death Row.

And he has said: “The state is supposed to represent Me - and I object to Me killing people.”

What has always seemed to me the conclusive argument is the story of Timothy Evans. Accused of murder in 1950 he was eventually found to be innocent.

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But by then they'd already hanged him.

On the face of it, and as far as we can tell right now, the police and jury got Steve Wright bang to rights.

I have no reason to doubt that he did indeed murder five poor, sad prostitutes in Ipswich in December 2006.

Whatever his motive, whatever twisted things went through his head, he is a foul and dangerous individual and society needs protecting from him. Forever.

Unless, of course, later investigation shows - as in the case of poor Timothy Evans - that the legal process got it wrong.

I don't believe it did this time, but you can never know for sure. It can happen.

This is one reason why the judicial system here is more humane than in Steve Earle's native Texas.

One reason why we should never bow to the natural desire of the bereaved, such as the families of Wright's victims Tania Nicol and Paula Clennell, for a return of the death penalty.

They want revenge. Of course they do. What family in their sad shoes wouldn't?

Which is why the victims of crime, and their families, are the very last people whose desires should be taken into account when considering punishments.

Because they, of all people, are the least likely to consider the matter rationally.

Revenge should never, ever have any place in the legal system of a civilised country.

As the Nicol family put it, Wright “will be kept warm, nourished and protected”.

Though true, that doesn't mean he won't be punished. I wouldn't relish the prospect of spending the rest of my life incarcerated, however warm and well-fed.

And the sad fact is that whatever happens to Wright, nothing can bring back Tania, Paula or his other victims.

In some ways, the most interesting thing about Wright's trial was what was not considered - the question: Why?

That, in a sense, is as great a development since the 1981 trial of “Yorkshire Ripper” Peter Sutcliffe as the forensic science that pointed to Wright as the killer.

There was no attempt to determine whether Wright was bad or mad - either way he is dangerous to know, and that is enough.

As for that staple argument in favour of the death penalty - the deterrent theory - you have only to compare murder rates in Texas and the UK to see it doesn't work.

In the case of someone like Wright - thank heaven there aren't many like him - one can only take a wild guess at how his brain works.

But it seems to me a good guess that the thought of spending the rest of his days in prison might be a bigger deterrent than that of having his days cut short.


THE conditions Steve Wright will face in jail may not be as cushy as members of the vindictive tendency would have you believe. But they will bear no comparison to those in Mbuji Mayi prison.

Since the start of the year, 17 prisoners have died in the jail, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Most succumbed to starvation, malnutrition and a lack of proper health care. Seven of the dead had not been convicted of any offence, but were awaiting trial.

The prison, designed for 100 inmates, currently holds 387 men and 11 women. There is no budget for food or healthcare, which have to be provided by prisoners' families - if they can afford it, if they can get there, and if they also pay the supervisors.

The prison is filthy and decrepit and exposes prisoners to such infections as scabies, lice and ticks.

Those who speak fondly of traditional or Victorian values might like to recall that prisons were like that here once.

There's another aspect too which should make us aware of just how lucky we are.

My friend Malachai, who I've featured here before, is with the small, dedicated and hard-working UN team in DR Congo. It was he who told me about the Mbuji Mayi jail.

And he adds, wrily: “I have personally been to some of the prisons here. They're as bad as the hospitals.”