Monday, December 03, 2012

Out On A Limb

In a manner of speaking.

The idea for today's post came from an article this past Saturday in the local Ottawa daily, the Ottawa Citizen. (In fact there is another "Ottawa daily", The Sun, but the less said about that the better. For non-Canadians, let me just say that if anyone at Fox News actually reads a Canadian newspaper, the choice would likely be one of the Sun progeny.)

The Citizen article reminded me that the last hanging in Canada took place fifty years ago. The city was Toronto, the date was December 11, 1962. The place of execution was the venerable (for want of a better adjective) Don Jail, on Gerrard Street East in Toronto's Riverdale neighbourhood. The jail - actually called the Toronto Jail - gets its nickname from the Don River which runs nearby. It's an old institution, first opened in 1858, when it looked something like this:

The two unfortunates that day fifty years ago were Ronald Turpin, who was convicted in the killing of a Toronto policeman John Nash; and Arthur Lucas, convicted in the killing of a criminal-turned-police-informant, Therland Crater. I won't speculate on the appropriateness of the death sentence for either man; except to say that Turpin killed the policeman in a shootout, and the evidence against Lucas (who was extradited from the United States to stand trial in Toronto) was said to be entirely circumstantial. Both men had led deadful lives. Lucas was said to have had an IQ of 63.

In the event, the execution fifty years ago was horribly botched for one of the two men. The hangman miscalculated either the weight or height of the man, and he dropped too far, and as a result he was almost decapitated. The prison chaplain, one Cyril Everitt, told his son after he arrived home that "There was blood everywhere." One can imagine that it was a gruesome scene. Indeed one can hardly imagine that any hanging could be anything other than gruesome, even with no miscalculation leading to decapitation.

One of the most memorable descriptions of a hanging that I have read was penned by George Orwell, based on his time as a policeman in Burma. You can read it here:

Happily - or not, depending on one's point of view - those were the last hangings, in fact the last executions, in Canada. Capital punishment was not, however, legally abolished in this country until July 14, 1976. The issue did not go away, though. On June 30, 1987, a bill to restore the death penalty was defeated by the House of Commons in Ottawa in a close 148-127 vote. The Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his Minister of External Affairs (and former Prime Minister) Joe Clark, both opposed the bill. The Deputy Prime Minister of the day, along with a majority of Progressive Conservative Members of Parliament, supported the bill. And even now, poll results show that from one-half to two-thirds of Canadians would support the restoration of the death penalty in certain cases. One supposes that capital punishment - and hanging was the only form of capital punishment ever doled out in Canada for non-military crimes - might some day be considered again, although there has been no mention of that in recent years by any government, not even by the current right-wing Conservative regime which prides itsellf as being "tough on crime".

It is a fact, though, that for almost a decade after capital punishment was abolished in Canada, the Federal Government kept a hangman on the public payroll at a cost of $200 a month. The rationale was that hanging might come back at any time, and it only made sense to have a capable fellow available to do the deed.

And as an odd footnote to this whole business of a Canadian hangman, the series of literary awards given out each year by the Crime Writers of Canada (CWC) are called the Arthur Ellis Awards. Arthur Ellis was - if you will forgive the pun - the "nom-de-noose" for the official Canadian hangman. The name, in fact, is the pseudonym of one Arthur B. English, a British man who became Canada's official hangman in 1913 upon the death of his predecessor, one John Radclive. Wikipedia notes that "Ellis" worked as a hangman in Canada until the botched execution of Thomasina Sarao in Montreal in 1935, in which she was decapitated. (What goes around comes around, obviously.) Ellis died in poverty in Montreal in July, 1938, and he lies buried in the city's Mount Royal Cemetery.

Given Ellis's unfortunate personal history, the horrors of capital punishment in general, and hanging in particular, it could be suggested that the CWC might want to reconsider the name of its literary awards. As currently constituted, the nomenclature of the Ellis Awards draws on a grim vein of humour that is really not very funny at all. I really think we can do better.

Capital punishment by whatever means appears to come and go in various countries around the world. The United States, of course, has a long and volatile history regarding capital punishment, by whatever means. Capital punishment was suspended in the U.S. from 1972 through 1976, primarily as a result of the Supreme Court's decision in Furman v. Georgia. The death penalty was seen as "cruel and unusual punishment". It has since been re-established in some states but not in all, or even in most. Today, the United States is one of only four industrialized democracies that still practice capital punishment. As regards the others, Japan and Singapore have executed prisoners, like the United States, while South Korea currently has a moratorium in effect. In 2011, the USA was the only source of executions (43) in the G8 countries or Western Hemisphere. Maintaining capital punishment places the United States in some decidedly dodgy company: the list includes China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

For many, the issue turns on whether capital punishment is a deterrent to criminals. The evidence, as I have read it, suggests there is no real general deterrent effect; the one major exception being that a murderer, once executed, is permanently "deterred" from murdering again. A major argument against capital punishment, by hanging or whatever means, is that the taking of a human life is morally wrong under any circumstances. Obviously, there is a lively (no pun intended) debate on that subject. A second major argument is that mistakes happen; people are executed who are later found to have been innocent of the crime. A third argument takes note of the fact that the wealthy rarely face the death penalty, while the poor and the disadvantaged, unable to afford the services of competent legal professionals, are much more likely to be executed.


j welling said...

We execute a goodly number every year in the U.S. if you take into account that we have prisons used as punishment - confinement - and we have others used for punishment.

Beto 1 is the sort of place we send convicts for punishment. It's probably more humane to hang someone. Humane punishment might not be the intent of the sentence, however.

You'll find differing opinions on my view. I would offer that in the mind of someone who has decided to perform a crime of violence, the element of consequence is somehow distorted if present at all.

Am I looking at this wrong for a crime writer ? IS it reasonable to sell a reader that the consequence of life in prison is a consideration in my act of violence ? Even with full evidence of premeditation, is the consequence of a retributive system of justice any influence on the criminal at all ?

Rick Blechta said...

Uh, Tom, I think it's CWC, not CCW.