Hamlet, Once Again

To ‘kill’ or not to ‘kill’, that is the question

Execution, for a capital crime, means snuffing out a life. By now, readers must have known that this author is no fan of capital punishment. No moral issues are involved. The only reservation is that the punishment is irreversible. And, with so many poor, wretched folk being locked up for years without trial, or wrongly sentenced, ‘judgements that cannot be corrected’ is hard to accept.

Freddie Hall is awaiting execution. He is to be administered a lethal injection. In actual practice, it is a number of injections. Generally, the sentenced convict is tied down, euphemistically called ‘strapped’, to an inclined chair. A series of injections, each with a different purpose, ranging from sedation to poisoning, are then pumped into him. All automatic, of course, so no one has actually ‘killed’ him, or her. They call it humane.

One can imagine the plight of a person being led to the sterile chamber. (It is said that even the needles are sterilised. Why is anybody’s guess.) Surely, when one is so close to meeting The Maker, emotions would play havoc with the victim to be. But the consensus is that Freddie is least perturbed. In fact, he sat through his trial with equanimity on his face and a pencil and paper in hand. He actually doodled his way through.

Freddie is not the tough cookie, as most readers would have decided by now. The authorities feel that he knows not what is about to happen. Freddie is not normal, mentally.

One of 16 children, brought up in abject poverty, Freddie is still a child in his attitude to life. So how did he end up on the wrong side of the law? A terribly wrong side of the law.

Thirty-five years ago, Freddie and another man decided to rob a store. They needed a get-away vehicle. They held up a woman in her car, took her to the woods and raped and killed her. Later, in a shoot-out, a policeman was killed. Freddie got the death rap while his partner got ‘life’ in prison. The court had decided that Freddie was the main culprit. Freddie Hall, murderer… with an IQ of less than 70!

In some countries, there is a limit below which a person’s IQ entitles him to be declared incapable of normal behaviour. In other, politically correct, words mentally challenged.
Freddie fits that bill. And, since the Supreme Court of America has a stay on executions of such people, Freddie’s case is about to decide the fate of a few thousand others.

The law of crime requires a very important ingredient, in order to obtain a conviction. It is called ‘mensrea’—Latin, for a bad mind, or malafide intent. The law distinguishes between a mistake and premeditated crime. It also considers whether the perpetrator knew of and realised the results of his actions. In other words, an imbecile cannot be considered guilty. Hospitalisation is most often the solution.

You be the judge.
As Freddie awaits the decision and his fate, what is your gut feeling? Should he or should he NOT be executed? Consider the law in force. Consider Freddie’s perceptions of right and wrong. Should the relatives of the murdered woman, pregnant at that time, and those of the policeman, be avenged? Should a life for a life (or two) be the final solution? We will keep our ear to the ground on this one.

In India, a delay of 35 years would set aside the execution. Maybe, as reports tell us, get even a pardon, in the case of Rajiv Gandhi’s killers. Cruel and unusual punishment is, often, cited as a reason. Is insanity, then, also a valid defence?

Of greater import is the benchmark IQ of 70, or whatever. It is almost impossible to obtain a higher IQ than capability. But is it not easy to fool the examiner into lowering the score and thereby escape the gallows? Tough questions. Finally, are we, as humans, supposedly civilised, in a position to faithfully answer these? We rest our case.

Author’s Note: Is it not possible, knowing Freddie’s lack of intelligence, that his companion might have found it easy to mislead the court into believing that it was Freddie, and not he, who pulled the trigger? Anyone for banning CAPITAL PUNISHMENT?

Bapoo Malcolm is a practising lawyer in Mumbai. Please email your comments to [email protected] or [email protected]

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