U of R book series
A gruesome look at state sanctioned killing
Article: Aidan Macnab – Contributor
In 1944, George Stinney of Alcolu, South Carolina, was electrocuted to death after being convicted of the murder of two young girls. Efforts are currently under way to earn a new trial in the hopes of exonerating Stinney, whom surviving relatives and supporters say died for a crime he did not commit. Stinney was fourteen years old when he was executed.
In Ohio on Jan. 14, 2014, Dennis McGuire was executed for the rape and murder of Joy Stewart. According to some eyewitness accounts, he did not go quietly, quickly or painlessly. The BBC reported last week that, he was put down with a new “two-drug cocktail,” as the drugs traditionally used for lethal injection are in short supply.
Anesthesiologists had warned that the new drugs may cause “air hunger,” an experience similar to drowning, that may account for the 10-15 minutes of gasping, choking and struggling that some eye-witnesses describe as McGuire’s final moments.
University of Regina History Professor Ken Leyton-Brown says that because there is and may always be a debate about the merits of capital punishment in Canada, confronting these startling examples of the nature of state-sanctioned killing is important. As Prof. Leyton-Brown put it, “It’s not pleasant killing people.”
Leyton-Brown wrote, The Practice of Execution in Canada, which is a gritty, intriguing and at many points, nauseating account of capital punishment’s near century of prevalence in this country. From when citizens gathered on the first anniversary of confederation to watch the hanging of Joseph Ruel, to 1976, where after 14 years without a single execution, the practice was officially abolished.
Though, Prof. Leyton-Brown recognizes that many still view execution as a necessary aspect of being tough on crime, he did not write the book to allow Canadians to reminisce on a better time.
“I would be happy if people read my book and thought about the death penalty and came to the conclusion that it’s a bad idea.” he said.
This book would be an excellent read for those in favour of reinstating the practice, as it pulls no punches. It paints a picture in the reader’s mind of what capital punishment really looks like and depicts the moral quandary it presented to those administering the punishment. A judge who delivered a death sentence through tears and another who, in the same situation, dropped dead of a heart attack on the stand being two examples described.
Also, aside from the guilt execution placed on those involved in the judicial process, the book shows that the slow agonizing demise, experienced by Dennis McGuire was all too common.
Ideally, the condemned would, with the noose around their neck, drop from the scaffolding, break their neck and die immediately. But often, due to the incompetence or inexperience of the executioner, a clean break would not take place and the individual would hang there for nearly half an hour being slowly strangled to death. Decapitation was another common mishap that took place.
However it was clear from talking to Prof. Leyton-Brown, that he did not think that an accident was necessary to make execution a gut-wrenching, unnecessary and ineffective method of punishment.
“There is a debate in the United States now about what is cruel, and whether having someone suffer for 17 minutes or 25 minutes is cruel. It seems to me that when you have someone in court and judge turns to them and says, ‘We’re going to take you to a place where you’ll be locked up in a little room, and then at some point in the future, we’re going to take you out and kill you.’ It seems to me that that is a bit cruel.”