The penalty for listening to Supertramp is death: Ronnie Lee Gardners execution, Troy Davis life-saving hearing
As I’m sure you noticed, the media coverage of the recent execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner in Utah, USA was unusually extensive. A casual observer might have thought “Right. This must be a big thing”, but in actual fact it was just the 29th execution in the United States so far this year, and – judging by overall global figures in recent years – quite probably only about the 1,000th in the world in the last six months.
But of course this was all to do with Gardner electing to be killed by a five-man firing squad instead of by lethal injection. In these cases, as the Independent explained last week, one of the five “shooters” has a dummy round (made of wax) instead of a bullet in the “John Wayne” Winchester ’94 rifle, so that none of those that pull the trigger knows whether they’ve actually fired one of the fatal shots.
I wonder why. Could it be that the authorities recognise, at a deep level, that the fundamental inhumanity of the death penalty is too much of a burden for most ordinary people? Maybe it’s a bit of insurance against traumatised employees later blaming their employers….
To me (and my own employer, Amnesty) any death penalty is inhumane and unacceptable, whether it’s by injection, firing squad, hanging, beheading with a sword (as in Saudi Arabia), being shot with a pistol in the back of the head (Belarus) or – grotesquely enough – being stoned to death (Iran , Somalia). As Paul Vallely says, it’s not the method, it’s the thing itself.
I’ve been through the arguments against the death penalty on this blog before (the cruelty, the arbitrariness, the unfair trials, the denial of rehabilitation, the risk of making mistakes) but it boils down very simply to what the indie band Bearsuit say, “What you’re doing, what you’re doing / Is wrong”. It’s just wrong that any humane justice system can cold-bloodedly set out to kill another human being in the name of justice. Killing to show that killing is wrong etc.
Gardner’s death came despite the fact that the jury at his trial never heard about his severely abused childhood or suspected brain damage, mitigating factors that don’t excuse his crimes but could well have a seen a jury deciding life imprisonment not death was appropriate (such is the roulette nature of the US capital punishment process).
There are countless stories like this among the 3,200 cases of prisoners currently languishing on death row in the US. One of these is Troy Davis, the 41-year-old man who’s been on death row in Jackson, Georgia for almost 19 years (since he was 22). He’s had several executions dates and once came within two hours of death (by lethal injection) but has since had the US Supreme Court order a review of the (very dodgy) evidence in his case. If it goes well it could, literally, save his life. For updates, follow Amnesty campaigner Kim Manning-Cooper on Twitter (@KimM_C): she's over in Georgia all this week. And, if you're at all able to, please come along to the Amnesty solidarity event for Troy tomorrow (Tuesday, 5-7pm) at the US embassy (24 Grosvenor Square, London W1A 2LQ).
PS: what should we read into the fact that in the build-up to Gardner’s death last week, the Utah prison authorities apparently switched from Supertramp, Genesis and Phil Collins on the PA system being piped into the media area, to a soundtrack of Claude Debussy at the moment that Gardner was actually shot? As readers of this blog will know, I’m always keen to bang on about music and what it all means, but here, frankly, I’m lost for words ….
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.