SubScribe: Grim parade of death: five centuries of botched executions and we've still learnt nothing Google+

Friday 18 October 2013

Grim parade of death: five centuries of botched executions and we've still learnt nothing

Iran and America. Two cultures with nothing but antipathy for each other. Two cultures with one common policy reviled by most of the world: an addiction to state-sanctioned murder.


The Americans favour death by injection -with its false overtones of the merciful euthanasia of putting a nuch-loved dying pet 'to sleep'. The Iranians stick to hanging.

We learnt on Wednesday that the two states have something else in common - an inability, even in the 21st century - to get it right.

The Americans' lethal syringe delivers three drugs: a sedative, a paralysing drug and a third to stop the heart. The sedative is injected first to limit the prisoner's suffering. The drug of choice is pentobarbital, but prisons are running short because the makers don't want their product used to kill people.

So on Tuesday, Florida executed William Happ substituting midazolam hydrochloride, an untried sedative that had previously been used only to tranquillise animals. It was injected at 6.02pm. Nine minutes later Happ's  head was moving back and forth. He died at 6.16pm.

Happ, 51, had been on death row for 27 years after being convicted of kidnapping, beating, raping and strangling 21-year-old Angie Crowley. He finally confessed to the killing in the execution room.

Happ may have been a thoroughly nasty piece of work, and no doubt he did not suffer the anguish of his young victim. But even the Americans accept that the punishment is death, not suffering. It is not the intention that a man should be strapped to a table and left writhing in agony for 14 minutes.

Over in Iran, a 37-year-old man called Alireza was hanged this month for smuggling and possession of a kilo of crystal meth. He was pronounced dead after 12 minutes and carted off to the morgue.

The next day a morgue worker noticed steam in the plastic cover in which Alireza had been wrapped. Closer examination showed that he was still alive and he was taken to hospital. His family were naturally delighted.

But the Guardian reported on Wednesday that Iran has ordered that Alireza should be re-executed once he has recovered sufficiently. The country's law is that convicts should be conscious and relatively healthy when they are put to death.

Mohammad Erfan, a judge with Iran's administrative justice court, is quoted as saying:
'The sentence issued by the revolutionary court is the death penalty … in such circumstances it should be repeated once again.'

The two stories emerged on Wednesday, which had been designated Blog Action Day. This year the theme was human rights. It seems to me that the most fundamental human right is the right to life - hence this delayed contribution to the collection.

Most people have entrenched opinions on capital punishment, so nothing written here will change anyone's view. But that doesn't make the arguments less worthy of rehearsal - if killing is wrong, then killing is wrong, full stop. It doesn't suddenly become right because it is ordered or sanctioned by the state.

The fact that the majority of people in this country claim to be in favour of bringing back hanging for certain crimes is horrifying and the one example where governments of all colours are right to override the public will and deny a fresh vote on the subject. Long may they hold out.

So given that  Blog Action Day was on October 16, let's focus on that date.

Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer were devout and influential bishops during the reign of Edward VI, basing their teachings strongly on the Bible. But when Edward's sister Mary Tudor succeeded him, she was determined to return England to the Catholicism that had been outlawed after the schism that came with Henry VIII's divorce of her mother Catherine of Aragon.

The two bishops were arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London shortly after Mary became Queen in 1553. They were eventually sent, with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, to Oxford for interrogation by the Lord's Commissioner at the university's divinity school. Neither was prepared to accept that the Roman Catholic Mass was a sacrifice of Christ or that the Pope was the heir of St Peter. They were sentenced to death.

On October 16, they were tied to stakes and the pyres beneath them lit. Both had tied gunpowder round their necks to hasten their deaths. But the wood on Ridley's fire was green and burned only as far as his lower body. Latimer died relatively swiftly, urging his fellow bishop. 'Be of good comfort, Mr Ridley, and play the man!' Ridley meanwhile cried out:
 'Lord have mercy upon me! I cannot burn..Let the fire come unto me, I cannot burn.'
 Eventually someone stepped forward to set fire to the top of the top of the pyre, which exploded the gunpowder and ended his suffering.

The execution of Marie Antoinette on October 16, 1793 was at least more efficient than that of the two bishops. The guillotine is a swift, if dramatic, instrument of death. But whether it was any more just is questionable. 

The Queen was put on trial before the French Revolutionary Tribunal on October 14. She was convicted of trumped up charges and the sentence that had almost certainly been decided before her arrest in August was carried out within two days of her first stepping into court.

The execution required the ritual humiliation of cutting her hair, dressing her in a plain white robe and transporting her to the scaffold in an open cart so that the crowds had ample opportunity to jeer.

One of the most persuasive arguments against the death penalty is the risk of executing an innocent man. And there must surely be strong doubts about the guilt of William Rose, who was hanged in Redwood Falls, Minnesota, on October 18, 1891. 

Rose was tried and acquitted twice of killing his neighbour Moses Lufkin, who was shot in the back when he had his back to a window of his home. Rose was convicted at his third trial and sentenced to death. Lufkin was apparently an unpopular man and there were said to have been many who would have motives to kill him. Roses argued his innocence to the last.

The hangman arrived at the gallows equipped with two ropes because another man was due to be executed on the same day, but he was given a stay of execution by the governor.

As Rose was being hanged the rope snapped. He fell to the ground and was knocked unconscious. The deputies officiating were not sure what to do, but eventually, they lifted him back up, tied the spare rope round his neck and tried again. It took him between ten and twenty minutes to die.

The case is the subject of a book called Murder in Gales: A Rose Hanged Twice by Patricia Lubeck, who is the curator of the Redwood County Museum, which was established in the room where Rose spent his last night.

Rose was the first and only man to be hanged in Redwood Falls - which even today has a population of barely 6,000 -  so the executioner's ineptitude may be understandable. But when you have some of the most abhorred criminals of a generation whose trial has been followed by the whole world, you don't expect any slip-ups when it comes to the denoument.

The Nuremberg defendants stand for the verdicts that condemned 11 of those present to death
Twelve Nazi leaders were condemned to death at the end of the Nuremberg trials in 1946. Martin Bormann was convicted in his absence, the other 11 were sentenced to hang on October 16. Hermann Goering took a cyanide capsule two hours before his appointment with the gallows.

The executions took place between 1am and 3am in a gymnasium that had been used by American servicemen for a basketball game three days earlier. 

There were three sets of black painted wooden gallows, with the rope attached to a crossbar supported by two uprights on a small platform 8' high which was reached by 13 wooden steps. The 'drop' was concealed by black curtaining, so that once the trap was sprung the condemned man would dissappear from view. Two of the gallows were used alternately, the third was there as a spare and was not needed.

The hangman was the American Master Sergeant John C. Woods, assisted by Stanley Tilles and Joseph Malta. Their first customer was the former foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.

Various accounts of the hangings strongly suggest that many of them were botched, possibly deliberately. Joseph Kingsbury-Smith of the International News Service,  who was present to represent the American Press, wrote a calm but chilling report of proceedings (including a cigarette break after the first two hangings). His only reference to  any hiccup related to Julius Streicher, editor-in-chief of the anti-semitic Der Sturmer newspaper:
'When the black hood was raised over his head, Streicher's muffled voice could be heard to say, 'Adele, my dear wife.'
 At that instant the trap opened with a loud bang. He went down kicking. When the rope snapped taut with the body swinging wildly, groans could be heard from within the concealed interior of the scaffold. Finally, the hangman, who had descended from the gallows platform, lifted the black canvas curtain and went inside. Something happened that put a stop to the groans and brought the rope to a standstill. After it was over I was not in the mood to ask what he did, but I assume that he grabbed the swinging body of and pulled down on it. We were all of the opinion that Streicher had strangled.'
In fact,  it is clear from Kingsbury-Smith's notes of the time that each man was declared dead that these were not 'clean' executions. For example, he states that the trap opened on Fritz Saukel at 2.26am and that there was 'a load groan under the gallows'. Afred Jodl was then brought into the gymnasium.
'At 2.34 am. Jodl plunged into the black hole on the scaffold. He and Sauckel hung together until the latter was pronounced dead six minutes later and removed.'
So even by Kingsbury-Smith's account, it took Sauckel 14 minutes to die. Other reports show that none of the ten died within ten minutes and that Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel struggled at the end of the rope, bleeding from eyes, nose and mouth, for 24 minutes.

Several of the men had battered heads or faces, and historians have noted that this was probably caused by the fact that the trap doors did not lock open, but swung back and forth, hitting the prisoner as he dropped.

Woods had openly relished the opportunity to hang the Nazis and Tilles was of the opinion that he botched the executions deliberately. In his book By the Neck Until Dead, Gallows of Nuremberg, he wrote:
'Woods adjusted the noose, but placed its coils off centre. This would not snap Streicher's neck and he would strangle. I realised instantly that this was Woods' intent and I saw a small smile cross his lips as he pulled the hangman's handle.'
Malta later admitted that the hangings were badly botched and needlessly prolonged. This did not trouble him, he told interviewers in the 90s that it had been a pleasure to take part in the proceedings and that he'd do it all again.

Woods had executed nearly 400 people before the Nuremberg ten. His services were not used again. He died four years later while checking an electric chair.

This may seem like ghoulish detail and few would have sympathy with leading players in a regime that tortured, starved and killed millions. But given the West's air of superiority after the bungling of Saddam Hussein's execution, it is worth remembering how these men met their deaths.

The word execution is generally taken as meaning a  killing as part of some kind of judicial process - although the Oxford dictionary refers merely to the carrying out of a death sentence passed on a condemned person. In each of the cases above there was a trial, however farcical.

In 1975, however, five journalists were killed on the orders of an Indonesian general and the truth of their deaths was covered up by governments for years. They became known as the Balibo Five.

Reporters Greg Shackleton and Malcolm Rennie, cameramen Gary Cunningham and Brian Peters, and sound recorder Tony Stewart died in the town of Balibo on October 16 as they investigated secret incursions in to the tiny state of East Timor by Indonesian forces. Indonesia went on to a full-scale invasion the following December and occupied the territory for 25 years.

The five were working for Australian news channels, although Peters and Rennie were British and Cunningham was a New Zealander. They had anticipated that an attack on Balibo was imminent but thought that as journalists they would be safe. When Indonesian special forces arrived in the town, Peters emerged from a house and approached them with his arms in the air, saying that he was a journalist. He was either shot or stabbed.

Soldiers then went into the house and shot Shackleton, Cunningham and Rennie. Stewart locked himself in the bathroom but he was discovered and stabbed in the back. The five bodies were laid out in the house, covered in mattresses, doused in petrol and set alight the next day. The Indonesians claimed that they had been shot accidentally in crossfire.

In December Roger East of the Australian Associated Press went to East Timor to discover what had happened to the Balibo Five. He was captured by the Indonesians on the morning of the invasion, summarily shot and his body dumped in the sea.

Both the Australian and American governments tacitly supported the invasion of East Timor and either actively covered up or failed to investigate the fate of the journalists. In 2007, however, a New South Wales Coroner conducted an inquest in to the death of Brian Peters and concluded:
'Brian Raymond Peters, in the company of fellow journalists Gary James Cunningham, Malcolm Harvie Rennie, Gregory John Shackleton and Anthony John Stewart, collectively known as “the Balibo Five”, died at Balibo in Timor- Leste on 16 October 1975 from wounds sustained when he was shot and/or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle, by members of the Indonesian Special Forces, including Christoforus da Silva and Captain Yunus Yosfiah on the orders of Captain Yosfiah, to prevent him from revealing that Indonesian Special Forces had participated in the attack on Balibo.
There is strong circumstantial evidence that those orders emanated from the Head of the Indonesian Special Forces, Major-General Benny Murdani to Colonel Dading Kalbuadi, Special Forces Group Commander in Timor, and then to Captain Yosfiah.'
In July 2009 Balibo, a film about the five,  had its premiere at the Melbourne Film Festivel. It was banned in Indonesia. The following September Australia announced that the federal police would conduct a war crimes investigation into the case.

Greg Shackleton reporting from Balibo two days before he was shot dead

It may be that October 16 has been a particularly bloody day down the centuries - it was also the date on which Liaquat Ali Khan, the first Prime Minister of Pakistan, was assassinated in 1951.

I suspect not.  But it has thrown up examples of innocent people being put to death, of show trials and kangaroo courts, of government cover-ups, of vengeance taking over from justice, and of  cruel ineptitude to this very day.

What price human rights?


  1. There is little in this post that I didn't know. But reading the accounts again gave me the same jolt as the first time. They need telling and retelling. We allow harsh sentences, for example, to masquerade as 'rehabilitiation, cynical actually, as there is only the barest nod at rehab. But with the death penalty, the masque slips. You can't rehabilitate a dead man, so it is clear those who call for the death penalty are only interested in seeking revenge. And so to with harsh prison sentences. Civilisation is supposed to have put us beyond that.

  2. I'm with you Liz,
    the death penalty can never be right & it is frightening to hear that the majority of UK residents are in favour of it.
    If the 16th Oct is typical, then our world is even less civilised than I thought!