|The shadow of the gallows|
In most cases, thanks to new rules introduced by the last Labour government and made worse by the Coalition, victims of miscarriages of justice now receive absolutely nothing by way of compensation for their years in prison, regardless of them having lost jobs, savings, homes, families and any realistic prospect of finding work again, let alone the ongoing impact of poor mental and physical health. It has been calculated that a prison sentence can age a prisoner up to ten years quicker than people outside, so it’s not just the stolen years of imprisonment that cause loss and suffering.
It is also true that the most difficult cases often involve very strong public opinions because of entirely understandable revulsion over the worst crimes. I well recall the popular demands for the public hanging of Stefan Kiszko back in 1976 (even though Britain had abandoned public executions after 1868). The sexually-motivated murder of little Lesley Moleseed reignited calls for the restoration of capital punishment in Britain.
Sadly he died in 1993 aged just 41 and had never even received the full compensation settlement he had been awarded because of his ordeal. Nowadays, it seems unlikely that he would even received a penny piece, especially since at the time of his release from prison no alternative perpetrator had been identified.
What made this case even more terrible was that the real killer, Ronald Castree, was allowed to remain free and unpunished for many years and went on to commit further sexual offences until he was caught in 2006 in connection with an entirely separate offence. Had the original investigation and forensic evidence been dealt with properly in 1975, he might have been identified 30 years earlier.
Above all, had Stefan Kiszko been executed – as many demanded at the time of his conviction – the state would have judicially murdered an innocent man, with police connivance. Of course, once a wrongly convicted person is dead, it is comparatively rare for there to be any continuing investigation of a case, so real killers can slip through the net.
|Not really the good old days|
During my own stay in prison I met a number of fellow inmates who, had capital punishment still been on the statute books at the time of their trials, would have almost certainly gone to the gallows. In different prisons I shared cells with two individuals who had both committed murder and so I had the first-hand experience of talking to them about their crimes, as well as their perceptions of the impact that these heinous offences had had upon the families of their victims. It was a highly informative, if involuntary, education.
|Behind a cell door with a murderer|
One had been cut off entirely by every other member of his family; the other was still being supported, but never returned from a visit by his relatives without breaking down in tears in our cell once the door had been slammed shut. As he once remarked to me “I’ve killed my entire family, myself included.” This man longed for death, but refrained from attempting suicide solely because he didn’t want to inflict yet another bereavement on his elderly parents.
To some extent, murderers in our prisons do form a separate caste. Other prisoners are acutely aware of their crimes. It’s hard to sit behind a locked cell door drinking tea without glancing at the hands of a man who you know has committed murder. Taking the life of another human being is still recognised as an enormity, even among those convicted for other serious offences such as robbery, drug trafficking or committing grievous assaults.
|Manson: not your average murderer|
I also came to recognise the truth that there is always a human being – even if a very damaged, and sometimes dangerous, one – behind the label of being a ‘murderer’. And, of course, very few actually look as demented or demonic as Charlie Manson did in his mugshots taken in the 1960s. The vast majority of lifers in for murder do appear very ordinary and unremarkable people.
In one prison I worked for nearly a year with a mass murderer who is very unlikely ever to be released. Many years ago he was part of a gang who massacred an entire family in their own home and his crimes remain notorious. He had entered a guilty plea at trial and would almost certainly have been sentenced to die prior to the suspension of capital punishment. Yet after all these years he was still alive, a relic of an earlier era: ageing, suffering from increasing infirmity and utterly crushed by remorse and regret for his actions when he was barely out of his teens.
I've since seen a black and white police photograph of him taken at the time of his arrest decades ago. Then he looked every inch the cocky, violent young thug. Now he is a shrunken, frail, silver-haired old man who is exquisitely polite and well read in ancient history. Looking at him today, with a cup of tea in his hand and spectacles balanced on his nose, it is difficult to associate him with his heinous acts committed as a young man. He resembles a bookish retired civil servant. Having been repeatedly turned down for parole, almost certainly because of the notoriety of his crimes, he is resigned to dying in prison and admits that he actually looks forward to it.
|Hands of a killer?|
If anyone reading this believes that a life sentence – especially a ‘whole life tariff’ – is somehow a soft option, I would suggest that it is actually a much more terrifying and harsh punishment than a quick death at the end of a rope or a lethal injection. If you really want someone who has committed terrible crimes to suffer for years – even many decades – consumed with guilt and remorse, then a life sentence can be immeasurably more effective as a form of punishment. I’ve seen it in action for myself. It is absolutely terrifying.