I was reading an article in Le Figaro the other day about the case in Texas of Jeffery Wood, a man under sentence of death (for the last twenty years) for having participated in a robbery in the course of which his associate, who entered the store whose safe they intended to rob, shot dead the keeper of the store when he refused to open the safe. Wood was sentenced because he was engaged upon a joint enterprise, though he had nothing to do with the actual killing.
He was about to be executed when campaigners on his behalf obtained, though his lawyer, a stay of execution. Oddly enough, no one seemed outraged by the fact that he was to be executed twenty years after the sentence was passed: a legal system that does not have the confidence to execute someone sooner than a fifth of a century after he has been sentenced to death has no business executing anyone.
One of the reasons for asking for a stay of sentence was that a psychiatrist, since utterly discredited, told the court that Wood would remain a very dangerous man. A court that would take such an opinion into account is obviously one that has no concept of the rule of law. Even if you believe in the death penalty, you believe that it should be imposed for what a man has done, not what he might do in the future.
One phrase in the article in Le Figaro about the case immediately caught my eye. It could have been written by one of those hapless policemen in England deputed to inform the public about ‘a senseless murder’ or ‘a robbery that went tragically wrong,’ in which the robber killed the robbed. Le Figaro spoke of ‘the robbery of a little store that went wrong.’
What would be a robbery that did not go wrong? Presumably one in which the robbers got away with the booty without anyone coming to physical harm. This shows how far we have come to accept the criminal’s point of view: one is peacefully robbing a store when the storekeeper turns stubborn and refuses to hand over the key to the safe: what a human tragedy follows!
When we (the UK) had Capital Punishment I believe there was an unwritten rule that if the condemned had not been executed within 90 days of sentence they were automatically reprieved. It is more than 50 years since the last hangings here and still our American cousins haven’t caught up.
The sort of phraseology that is ‘a robbery that went wrong’ reveals thinking that is on its way to calling good evil and evil good.
Even with decades of delay, the obduracy of US prosecutors in many states ensures the execution of prisoners in the face of grave doubts over key evidence and fairness of trial procedures. Indigent prisoners especially are at risk in US courts.
The advantage of long gaps between sentence and execution is that the possibility of wrongful conviction can be well and truly thrashed out.