Romell Broom and Caryl Chessman

Romell Broom was the man whose execution by lethal injection had to be halted last week, because they couldn’t find a vein. It is said that the governor thanked him for his co-operation. Nevertheless, Ohio authorities intend to press ahead with a new date. I don’t believe in rape-and-murder, of which Broom was convicted, but I also don’t believe in capital punishment, which is a sanitised form of revenge (in most of its forms, sanitised, in that it is out of sight): I don’t approve of revenge, but I accept that there must be punishment.

It is not logical to feel more sorry for Broom than anyone else on Death Row, but it is also impossible not to feel sickened by the whole thing. The worst thing about the whole thing, for me, is that Broom has already been in prison for twenty years. Even if you believe in revenge, that surely should be enough to exact.

I know exactly when I first became hypnotised by the awfulness of capital punishment. It was on May 2, 1960, and it might be the same day that I gave up believing in God. I was seven. The newspapers reported that Caryl Chessman, a rapist who had been on Death Row for nine years, and who had received eight stays of execution, was due to be executed (gas chamber) the next day, unless a ninth stay came through. That night, I prayed, like all good little boys, for Caryl Chessman. The next day’s paper reported that he had been executed, because the ninth stay of execution had come through while the execution was taking place: because the judge’s secretary had dialled the wrong number. The idea of being in prison for nine years (Chessman was a rapist) and then executed struck me as obscene; the nasty last twist of the failed reprieve added an extra horror. (If you’ve never heard of Chessman, who had become well-known in prison because of his skill in writing – he had even had a novel or novels published – then there is a clear enough account here.)

The news that Broom will face (although I bet there will be legal challenges) a new attack on his veins comes in the same week that it was discovered who committed the murder for which Sean Hodgson was imprisoned in this country for 28 years, before the case was thrown out on appeal, making it the worst example of miscarriage of justice in British legal history (that we know about). Worse, it transpired that the actual murderer, who had to be exhumed so that a DNA test could be run, had admitted to the murder in the 1980s, but his evidence had been suppressed by the police (‘suppressed’ seems a fair word for not forwarding the information to Hodgson’s lawyers).

We seem to have stopped talking about capital punishment in the UK, on the basis that it is now 45 years since the last execution. However, any execution – including that of Saddam Hussein – which is carried out, anywhere in the world, is an execution by proxy. All humans share in the guilt. It is something I would march for.

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