Why the death penalty courts trouble

Vasilis Ragousis

Caroline Overington

Caroline Overington

Renowned journalist and author Caroline Overington sent a powerful message on the flaws of the death penalty at a Sydney Writers’ Festival event on Saturday morning.

She began with a film of a young black boy, surrounded by white men as they strapped him to the electric chair. The child was not tall enough to sit properly, so the wardens had to use the Bible as an improvised pillow. To the relief of the Curiosity Stage audience, she cut the video halfway through.

Her views on the matter were quite clear. “There is only one argument. That it is wrong. That it is barbaric,’’ she said.

“I am sorry for showing the video and I couldn’t show it all the way to the end. The boy depicted in this film was real. His name was George Stinney.’’

George was just 14 years old when he was accused of raping and murdering two young girls, aged 7 and 11, in South Carolina in 1944. The court that tried him was composed entirely of grown white men, and the boy was found guilty after only 10 minutes’ deliberation. His defence lawyer – also white – declined the opportunity to appeal the decision.

Eighty-three days later, George was taken to the electric chair and executed. Stinney was the youngest person executed in the US during the 20th Century, and the question of his guilt and judicial process has long been questioned. In December last year, his conviction was posthumously set aside.

Ms Overington believes such flaws persist in death penalty situations today.

“I first saw that footage two years ago, and I find it difficult to believe that anyone who watched it cannot conclude that the death penalty is wrong,” she said. “It was wrong then and it is wrong now.”

George’s story was told in a novel by David Stout, Carolina Skeletons (1998), which was later adapted into a film of the same name. A new movie, 83 Days, is currently in production.

Ms Overington referred to another infamous case, that of Australian Louisa Collins, a terrible true story the writer spent five years researching – Last Woman Hanged.

Louisa – a twice-married mother of 10 – was found guilty of murdering her two husbands despite a complete lack of evidence and after a record-breaking four male-only trials and brutally dispatched in Sydney in 1889. Louisa maintained her innocence to the end.

“A lot of people have asked me, did she do it? Did she kill her husband?” Ms Overington says. “I’m not going to tell you.

“And anyway, that’s not the important question. In my mind, the important question was how they got away with it. The execution. How could they do it? Because she was a woman. Think about that.’’

Like young George Stinney, Louisa Collins was tried by a group of men. Women were not allowed on a jury, for they had no right to vote at the time.

A court of men, and in George’s case white men, “can’t with any integrity commit an execution,’’ Ms Overington said.

Her final example was the recent case of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

These two men were executed even though they were rehabilitated, and Ms Overington was surprised by the responses of many everyday Australians who believed the Bali Nine pair should be executed.

“You’ll talk to some people and they will tell you that’s the law. They knew the law. They broke the law. You do the crime, you do the time … or take the bullet as was the case here,” she says. “And to my mind that argument, that this is the law … it’s flawed. Because what is the law today might not be the law tomorrow.”

She quickly points out that slavery used to be legal. At this point there were nods of agreement from the audience.

Ms Overington also countered some other more common arguments in favour of the death penalty. On the belief that the death penalty deters crime, she cites an Australian National Homicide Monitoring Program study that demonstrates abolishing the death penalty caused a historic drop in the rate of murders.

And the argument that the death penalty is cheaper than imprisonment is wrong, she says, not only because of the trouble countries such as the United States have in acquiring the necessary chemicals from pharmaceutical companies (which refuse to sell to death penalty states), but also because the bureaucracy of the system leads to prisoners spending years on death row, consuming government resources, as they try to find a legal way of avoiding execution.