Magazine | November 15, 2010, Issue

Sad, Bad, Mad

John Derbyshire hears both sides of the capital-punishment argument

Scowling out at me from my New York Post is Steven Hayes, recently convicted of an exceptionally vile crime in my neighbor state of Connecticut. With another man, not yet tried, Hayes invaded a family home, clubbed the father senseless, raped and strangled the mother, and then set the house on fire, burning alive the two daughters. He has been found guilty on 16 charges, six of them capital. The sentencing phase of the trial now begins, with arguments as to whether or not Hayes should be executed.

Public opinion in the region strongly favors execution — a respectable poll recorded 76 percent for, 18 percent against. Anglosphere nations, and most other nations too, I believe, always have good majorities in favor of capital punishment. This is, however, one of those issues on which public opinion seems unable to manifest itself as political action. For decades now capital punishment has been less and less practiced in civilized nations, part of the general softening of manners and attitudes that has come with what Francis Fukuyama called “the Great Disruption” — the slow, mostly peaceful revolution that began in the mid-1960s. Connecticut has executed just one person since 1960.

I’m with the 76 percent there. A formalized act of state violence seems to me an appropriate response to the extremes of human depravity. The arguments on the other side are important and reasonable, though. I have just been reading through some of them in a book I came on by chance while researching the Hungarian-British writer Arthur Koestler. The book is a slender Penguin paperback dated 1961, written by Koestler and a criminologist named C. H. Rolph, whom I vaguely remember from the pages of The New Statesman of those days. Titled Hanged by the Neck, the book is a polemic for the abolition of capital punishment in Britain, part of a campaign in which Koestler, who had once been under sentence of death himself, was active.

The last executions in Britain took place in 1964. The practice was abolished soon afterwards. So when this book came out, murderers were still being hanged by the neck — three in the previous year (1960). Koestler and Rolph present all the abolitionist arguments very cogently — arguments that will be familiar to anyone who has given much thought to the topic. The authors include some curious and interesting details. I did not know until reading this, for example, that female prisoners were attended only by men on the scaffold. It was apparently thought improper for female prison officers to witness hangings. (Albert Pierrepoint, Britain’s official hangman, testified to a 1949 commission of inquiry that women about to be hanged were “very brave.”)

#page#What most caught and held my attention was the book’s penultimate chapter. Here the authors just list, with a paragraph or two for each, all 123 cases of persons hanged for murder in Britain in the years 1949–60. It is a melancholy catalogue, confirming, for the subgroup of convicted murderers, the old classic description of a prison population: “the sad, the bad, and the mad.”

The sad easily dominate. The overwhelming impression is, in fact, one of pathos. Close to 50 percent of the cases are crimes of passion. You could get several operas from this material, all along the general lines of Carmen.

The death-wish is knitted in tight with the love-despair. Giving himself up to the police after strangling his girlfriend in a jealous rage, Oliver George Butler (24, factory worker) pleaded: “Can’t you hang me now? I want to be with her.” John Howard Godar (31, film cameraman) was of the same mind when charged with stabbing his girlfriend to death after she boasted of dating another man: “That’s right. I just want to go where she is as quickly as possible and no messing about.” Dennis George Muldowney (41, a porter at the Reform Club) let his actions speak for him when on trial for killing a Polish countess out of unrequited love: He pleaded guilty, refused legal aid, and was sentenced to death after a trial lasting three minutes. Perhaps most poignant of all, while at the same time most rope-worthy, was Frederick Arthur Cross (33, unemployed), who stabbed a random stranger to death “so that I would be hanged. My wife left me on New Year’s Day and went away with another fellow and the two children.”

This was the great age of the well-plotted detective novel, but the kind of ingeniously planned homicides that kept Agatha Christie’s heroes busy for 200 pages seem to have been rare. The bad killed mainly on impulse when caught in the act of petty larceny. Of the two or three you could get a decent detective story out of, I most liked Herbert Leonard Mills, a 19-year-old clerk, who sought an unusual entry into journalism. He strangled a woman “in order to make money out of an article for the News of the World [a downmarket Sunday newspaper] describing how he found the body.” (That was in 1951, before the age of magazine internships, which must have saved innumerable lives.)

And then there were the mad. Here you are looking into the abyss — not just of clinical insanity (the M’Naghten Rules, which spare the insane from capital punishment, were honored more in the breach than in the observance) but of adults with the minds of children, too dimwittedly clueless even to think up ex post facto rationalizations for their deeds, as most of us do instinctively. Edward Isaac Woodfield (49, laborer) strangled a woman shopkeeper for “no apparent motive.” Asked if he had anything to say before sentencing, he replied: “God knows best, Sir.” I wish I could believe it.

Steven Hayes, who is surely one of the bad, will not be executed. Even if the death sentence is passed on him, he will linger for a decade or two on Death Row, as murderers do nowadays. (Koestler and Rolph tell us that in 1961 Britain the average was five months.) By that time the irresistible softening trend will have washed away Connecticut’s death penalty altogether. If we are lucky, Hayes will die old in prison. If he is lucky, he’ll get parole, write a book, and start an auto-body repair shop with the royalties. It’s the age we live in, but it’s not justice, not to my eyes.

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