The death penalty... at times I’d have flicked the switch myself

The death penalty... at times I’d have flicked the switch myself

Detective Garda Colm Horkan. He was shot 11 times.

THE death penalty is a controversial subject at the best of times, and I have mixed views on it.

I must admit there were times during my service in An Garda Siochana when I supported it. In fact, there were a few occasions when I would gladly have flipped the switch myself.

The subject has arisen in conversations again recently following the conviction of Stephen Silver.

A 46-year-old motorbike mechanic from Aughaward, Foxford, Co Mayo, Silver was jailed for life for the capital murder of Detective Garda Colm Horkan. He shot the garda 11 times, but he will not be executed.

Up until 1990, the capital murder of a garda, a prison officer or a diplomat was punishable by execution in Ireland, but the death penalty was abolished in 1990 and replaced with a 40-year mandatory sentence.

The last person to be legally executed in this jurisdiction was Michael Manning, a 25-year-old Limerick man. In 1954, he was executed by hanging at Mountjoy Prison in Dublin, where he was later buried in an unmarked grave.

He had been found guilty of the rape and murder of Catherine Cooper, 65, who worked at Barrington’s Hospital in the city.

The defence team had claimed insanity and wanted the charges reduced to manslaughter as Manning had not planned the attack in advance. While there was a history of mental health issues in his family, the judge sided with the prosecution and told the jury to discard the argument, as he claimed the fact that Manning has shoved clods of grass into the victim’s mouth to stop her screaming showed he was aware of the crime he was committing.

Around that same time, there was a campaign to have the death penalty abolished and in 1964, under Charles Haughey as Minister for Justice, the penalty was abolished except for cases involving the murder of a garda or a prison officer.

Noel and Marie Murray were convicted of the capital murder of Garda Michael Reynolds following an armed robbery in Dublin in 1975. However, their capital conviction was overturned, and they received a life sentence.

Noel Callan and Michael McHugh were sentenced to death for the murder of Sergeant Patrick Morrissey following a robbery in County Louth in 1985. Their capital conviction was also overturned, and they were sentenced to 40 years in prison. A decision that wasn’t popular with many members of An Garda Siochana or the Defence Forces at the time.

Unlike Manning, Stephen Silver will not be hanged but will serve a prison sentence instead. The judge sentenced him to life imprisonment in accordance with the Criminal Justice Act 1990 and specified that he must serve a minimum of 40 years.

That same Act permits remission for good behaviour, so Silver could apply for parole after 30 years. He will be in his mid-70s before he can be considered for release by a parole board. Whether you agree with that or not is a moot point because that’s the system we use now.

Opponents of the death penalty would argue that’s a good thing. They cite examples of prisoners who have been executed for crimes they didn’t commit. That, of course, is an injustice that can never be rectified so for that reason alone, there are many who campaign for its abolishment. For them, life in prison is the preferred choice of punishment.

In the US, jurors have the option of sentencing convicted capital murderers to life in prison without the possibility of parole. That keeps them off the streets for good and also allows for mistakes to be corrected. That option, though, puts an onus on the State to mind them for the rest of their natural lives at enormous expense to the taxpayer, but opponents would argue that years of endless appeals can be just as expensive.

They also say that some family members of victims feel the death penalty doesn’t ease their pain. In fact, it can often add to it because the process can be lengthy and prolong the agony for the family.

On the other hand, supporters say the death penalty gives closure to the victim’s families. The criminal is no longer around to haunt them, and the execution brings finality to the tragic event.

DNA testing can now effectively eliminate all doubt as to a person’s guilt or innocence, and while we can never be 100% certain, it’s as close as you can get.

Another interesting question, though, is at what point does an execution become pointless? If a prisoner on death row develops a terminal illness and is certain to die, is there really a need to go ahead with an execution? Or if an inmate becomes afflicted with dementia and can no longer remember what his crime was, is it right to execute him if he doesn’t understand why he is being punished in the first place?

Doyle Hamm was 61 and terminally ill with lymphatic cancer when Alabama tried to execute him in 2018. Hamm’s failing health rendered it impossible for prison officials to find a usable vein after hours of trying. He eventually died after a long illness in 2021.

In Ohio, officials tried and failed to execute Alva Campbell, who was already dying of cancer He was unable to walk, used a colostomy bag and required four breathing treatments per day. Officials called off the execution in 2017 after they couldn’t find a vein, and Campbell later died in his cell of natural causes.

In 2018, Vernon Madison was facing execution in Alabama even though he couldn’t remember his crime. Several strokes and dementia had wiped out his memory of murdering a police officer in 1985. The US Supreme Court ruled that people cannot be executed if they don’t understand why they are being punished. Hard to disagree with that.

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