Last week, when Pope Francis made his much-discussed change to the Catechism entry on the death penalty, I happened to be reading a journalist’s memoir about Death Row. The author is an Associated Press reporter, Michael Graczyk, who retires this month aged 68, after witnessing more than 400 state executions.
This has made me think back to my time working in America in the 90s for the Times and Mail when I would regularly have to attend the executions of some of the USA’s most notorious serial killers.
The experience of attending an execution (press are usually allowed inside the jail but not the execution chamber) is both surreal and personally challenging to write about rationally. I found it difficult to remain morally detached.
What disturbed me most was the extent to which executions in America were forms of public and media entertainment, often with showbiz beat reporters standing outside state prisons as killers were turned into gruesome celebrities. A good example of this was the execution in Chicago in May 1994 of John Wayne Gacy, aka the Killer Clown. The scenes outside the prison – all night – were like that of a saturnalian pantomime with people dressed as clowns holding fireworks and placards. I wondered at the time whether America had lost its capacity to be morally shocked.
The first execution I reported on was in April 1992. Robert Alton Harris was the first person to be executed in California’s notorious San Quentin prison for 25 years. Born two months prematurely after his father had kicked his mother in the stomach, he suffered severe foetal alcohol syndrome for all his of short life outside prison.
He had been convicted of shooting dead two innocent boys in a car before stealing the vehicle and robbing a bank. Harris was buckled into his chair to be given his lethal injection – only to have a stay of execution issued at the 11th hour on the grounds that using Zyklon B poison (as used by the Nazis in Auschwitz) was “cruel and unusual” punishment.
Harris was unbuckled and then we all had to sleep on our desks or chairs in the jail where the California news media were gathered. Harris ended up being executed by fax when the State Governor intervened and ordered the execution.
Before I entered the jail, I was greeted by a pro-death penalty supporter holding a one placard reading: “Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz, What a Relief It Is”. Sunbathing of a yellow deck chair was a 65-year-old called the Reverend Bill Fling who preached at Church of Christ in Orangevale. “What is the punishment of God for a murderer?” he asked me. When I volunteered “Hell,” he looked disappointed. “Not Just Hell,” the preacher said. “But that he should surely be put to death.”
Graczyk’s testimony has a special value because few reporters in history have had more of an opportunity to witness – up close and personal – the thought processes and final moments of truly evil minds than Graczyk. In Britain, the closest we have to an expert on the psychology of what motivates such killers (often with little or no remorse) is biographer and leading criminal historian Geoffrey Wansell. He admits in his book Pure Evil: Inside the Minds and Crimes of Britain’s Worst Criminals, that writing about “foul” murders is a “profoundly difficult thing to do, and survive”.
Reading through the grim case histories, testimonies and photographs is no regular assignment: the evil can stain the inner chambers of your soul and mind.
One of the interesting things that I noted about Graczyk’s execution coverage of capital punishment in America’s most active death penalty state is the way that – in true American journalism tradition – he does not take a moral position. The closest he gets to any moral judgement is to say that “You realise how precious life is. And how quickly it can be taken”.
I am sure adopting the stance of the detached news agency observer was what enabled Gracyk was able to observe more executions than any other person in the United States since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, often interviewing the condemned, taking their photograph and noting their last meal requests.
But Wansell – like myself when I attended various executions – is writing from the British journalistic tradition of sceptical first-hand reporting, and he found it more difficult not to become morally engaged in his subject of despicably evil crimes.
He also takes up the difficult debate about how society should justly punish such deadly killers. In the end, Wansell argues that it is morally unacceptable for criminals to be given more than 50 years as a life sentence and admits that “he finds it difficult to sympathise entirely with the argument that the only acceptable response is to lock them up forever….It is a genuine moral dilemma and one which is little discussed”.
As a Christian, I believe that any sinner is capable of redemption and can change from acting in a profoundly evil way to learning the meaning of atonement.
That hope of redemption is the subject of much of our greatest character drama, from Shakespeare’s plays through to the detective stories of GK Chesterton and even Agatha Christie, where justice is always seen to be served at the end when the killer is caught and the natural order (of an English village or luxury train journey) is restored.
William Cash is founder of Spear’s
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