13 APRIL 1956, Page 30

The Death Penalty

REFLECTIONS ON tIANGING. By Arthur Koestler. (Gollancz, 12s. 60 IT has become a routine incantation of the defenders of capita' punishment that abolitionists are emotionalists, although, as Sir Ernest Gowers has demonstrated, it is the retentionists themselves who are sentimental. Partly because of this accusation, but chieflY because they have, such a good rational case, abolitionists usually go out of their way to eschew emotion. Not so Mr. Koestler. A,5 he was himself once under sentence of death, his attitude 1s . perfectly understandable, and if there are any disadvantages te his emotionalism they are outweighed by the power it brings tel his writing. Indeed his moral fervour combined with his 1.1511,0l literary grace and distinction may conceivably penetrate the cocoon of complacency which protects many retentionists froe/ the realities of the case, in a way that the deadly logic of Mt Gerald Gardiner in Capital Punishment as a Deterrent could never do. The difficulty, of course, is that there is some doubt whethe' the supporters of hanging read books on the subject. They eer, tainly do not write them; no book defending capital punishment has been written for a hundred years. Apart from an unconvincing and irrelevant chapter on free vitil and determinism, Mr. Koestler's book is a concise and accurate survey of capital punishment in this country. He describes the orgy of hanging that was the English criminal law from 1720.113 1830 and the efforts of reformers up to the present day to dimintsP and abolish capital punishment. He dewigs the judges with ent5r; taming ruthlessness, but it is unfair of him to blame thou for our slowness in reforming the law. Admittedly they hav,, invariably been wrong, but people (the House of Lords In, particular) have accepted the judges' opinion because they want(' 0d to accept it, and they continued to accept it, although as long ag.i as 1820 a select committee pointed out why, on hanging: is not very ' valuable. 'They only see the exterior of crimithle proceedings after they are brought into a Court of Justice. ` the cases which never appear there and of the causes Wille„ prevent their appearance, they can know nothing.' To consul: judges about questions of deterrence is like consulting an wide!, taker about preventive medicine. Further, it is unreasonable expect men who have sentenced quite a lot of people to death to get up later in Parliament or elsewhere and explain that the with: procedure was really rather unnecessary and imprisonment would have been better than hanging.

of reprieves. Three claims about the death penalty are often made Mr. Koestler has some caustic things to say about the grantth by Home Secretaries and others—that the Home Office anxiously searches each case for circumstances that would justify a reprieve, that insane people are not hanged, and that if there is a scintilla of doubt about the guilt of a murderer he is reptieved. There is no substance in any of these claims. The hanging of Bentley and of Ruth Ellis, to take only recent and notorious cases, makes nonsense of the first; the executions of Rivett and Mrs. Christofi disprove the second; and the killing of Mrs. Thompson, Thorne, Driscoll and Rowland makes a mockery of the third. Daughters of Cain, an interesting and reliable study of the nine women hanged in this country since Mrs. Thompson, illustrates the faults of the present system. The authors mention 'the disturbing fact that only six women were executed between 1923 and 1949, three have been executed during the past three years.' What is particularly disturbing is that there were, in each of these three cases, compelling reasons for a reprieve. There is considerable doubt as to the technical (but not moral) guilt of Mrs. Merrifield, since Professor Webster, Director of the Home Office Laboratory at Birmingham and the leading pathologist on the Midland Circuit, was of the opinion that death had been due to natural causes. Mrs. Christofi was mad, and Mrs. Ellis had had a miscarriage, caused by a blow from the man she murdered, less than a fortnight before her crime. The prerogative of mercy is now a misnomer. It has become a matter of law rather than equity; precedent reigns supreme. Bureaucrats run the prerogative like a filing system and, as in all filing systems, things are sometimes wrongly filed.

According to Daughters of Cain, 'Ethel Major, like Edith Thompson, was in a state of collapse for forty-eight hours before her death and was half carried to the scaffold.' Mr. Koestler has inserted in his book a slip of paper giving the gist of one of the Home Office's statements about the execution of Mrs. Thompson and about its instructions to prison governors. Luckily he has not included any of its other statements; it is not safe to believe anything the Home Office says about hanging unless there is corroborating evidence. Not, of course, that Lord Mancroft and Major Lloyd George are not honourable men, but a natural and proper pietas towards their own department enables them to achieve a suspension of disbelief towards its pronouncements which the rest of us cannot hope to emulate.

Mr. Koestler slips occasionally : on page 133 Mrs. Woolmington should be Mrs. Merrifield; he spells Haigh like the Field-Marshal; and he takes at its face value Lord Goddard's assertion (made through Lord Schuster) in 1948 that all the judges were in favour of hanging, though Lord Goddard was even wrong about that. But he has succeeded in writing on this, of all subjects, a dazzling book. Two months ago Mr. Gerald Gardiner slaughtered the case for capital punishment; Mr. Koestler now dances on