Fitness for Execution

In the days when there was still capital punishment in Britain, the prison doctor had to certify a man fit for execution before he could be hanged. What fitness for execution consisted of, I am uncertain: It was a concept that was inadequately taught in medical school.

Presumably fitness for execution had nothing to do with the guilt or innocence of the man to be executed, or his moral desert; that was hardly a doctor’s business. It could hardly have had much to do, either, with his physical fitness; you wouldn’t postpone an execution just because of a cold or a touch of osteoarthritis. Apart from anything else, executions, like trials, require coordination and are difficult and expensive to arrange.

I think the main medical requirement of fitness for execution must have been sanity. You couldn’t hang a lunatic; that wasn’t cricket, so to speak. I think that if I had been a prison doctor in those days, as I was to be later, I should have diagnosed every condemned man as suffering from a condition that unfitted him for hanging. There are now so many diagnoses to choose from that practically everybody has one—at least one, often more. Indeed, if you are fit for hanging there must be something wrong with you.

Anyway, sanity was an odd criterion for fitness to be hanged. Why should a lunatic—assuming that he was sane at the time of his capital crime—escape hanging? It could hardly be because, in his state of mind, he could learn nothing from the experience, since being hanged is not a learning experience like, say, attending a lecture, at least not unless you believe that a man is reincarnated after his death and furthermore remembers things from his previous life, an opinion held mainly by cranks who claim to have been someone famous in a prior existence.

Fitness for execution was luckily not a diagnosis I ever had to make, but the other day I was rootling round amidst the piles of books that make it so difficult for people (including me) to reach the desk in my study when I came across a paperback with yellowing pages published as long ago as 2008 which the title Texas Death Row: Last Words, Last Meals, Last Rites, a book that, once opened, exerts a strange fascination. It recounts the crimes, and the last meals and statements, of the 391 people executed in Texas by fatal injection in the quarter century between 1982 and 2007.

I am not against the death penalty because it is unjust; indeed, as you read of some of the crimes committed by the 391, albeit in a filleted version of 200 words, you come to the conclusion that capital punishment is the only just and fitting punishment for the persons who committed them. Nor am I against the death penalty because it is ineffective as a deterrent; I found evidence in England that it was effective. However, efficacy in deterrence is not by itself a sufficient justification of a punishment. Public execution of those who park illegally would deter illegal parking, but we (most of us, at any rate) would not advocate it.

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