Youngsters in Scottish schools seeking a topic for their Higher English discursive essay submissions are pondering the issue of the death penalty. The topic is hot because President Trump has tweeted more than once that the death penalty should be administered to 29-year-old Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, the man suspected of driving a truck into bystanders in New York.
In October, however, Pope Francis came out unequivocally against the death penalty. So – if students are looking for pointers, Googling President Trump and Pope Francis will offer opposing views. They could also search for Sr Helen Prejean, possibly the world’s foremost campaigner against the death penalty.
Prejean would point out from her decades of experience as spiritual adviser to the guilty - and the innocent - on death row in the US, that taking a man’s life on an ‘eye for an eye’ basis gets us nowhere.
Henry Burnett offers a point of reference here in Scotland. At the age of 21, Burnett was hanged for the murder of merchant seaman Thomas Guyan. It was the outcome of a messy love triangle that left Guyan dead on a kitchen floor in Aberdeen.
Although three psychiatrists testified that Burnett was insane at the time of the crime (he had attempted suicide in the past and jealously kept his girlfriend locked up), Burnett was sentenced to death. The young lad’s life came to an end at 8am on Thursday, August 15, 1963.
Two years later, the death penalty was abolished in the UK. In the 20th century up to Burnett’s death, there had been just 33 men and one woman hanged in Scotland.
The appetite for such a drastic sentence had clearly waned since both Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray reported on public hangings. Indeed, when Thackeray went to witness a hanging at Newgate prison in London in 1840, it was because there were already calls for an end to the death penalty. Abolition was a long time coming.
Thackeray condemned the UK’s ‘Christian government’ for maintaining the penalty and wrote ‘The whole of the sickening, ghastly, wicked scene…is an awful one to see, and very hard and painful to describe.’ A psychiatrist who witnessed Burnett’s execution said much the same.
In the US, however, the death penalty prevails in a number of states. Pope Francis has won no fans on the conservative right in America for seeking to end the death penalty worldwide. But how can Catholics talk about the sanctity of life yet demand that a man be strapped to a gurney and injected with three lethal poisons to bring his life to an end?
The movie ‘Dead Man Walking’ tells Prejean’s story. It isn’t an easy watch. Statistics in Prejean’s book of the same name demonstrate the penalty’s futility. Today, aged 77, she continues the fight on Facebook and Twitter, arguing that executing the rejected, the abandoned, the bullied, the mentally ill, and the dependant doesn’t deter crime. Instead, Prejean believes, it serves to brutalise the community that demands execution. She has said ‘Its practice demeans us all’.
Today, 141 out of 199 countries have abolished the death penalty. Most executions are carried out in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. In 2016, the US ranked sixth in the number of executions effected.
In condemning the death penalty, Pope Francis prayed ‘for those on death row, that their lives may be spared, that the innocent may be freed and that the guilty may come to acknowledge their faults and seek reconciliation’ and ‘for civic leaders, that they may commit themselves to respecting every human life and ending the use of the death penalty’.
Worryingly, as the UK government extricates us from European law, those sitting their Highers now may in the future face a real debate on bringing back the death penalty. I hope the arguments of Pope Francis and Sr Helen Prejean prevail against the practice that ‘demeans us all’.