England abolished capital punishment in the mid-1960’s when few capital crimes were committed there, and corporal punishment was abolished long before that. Sometimes when I am in Manhattan, reading of the constant homicides there, I recall the four “Mayfair Playboys” of my not-so-distant youth who were sentenced to the “cat” in two doses of eight strokes, the full order of 16 being thought unbearable at one time. Their offense: beating up an old lady (they did not even rob her). Last year most crimes in Britain, which admittedly doubled from 1979 to 1990, were simple car thefts. In the East Sussex in which I was brought up I hardly ever saw a policeman (for some reason London’s Met, or Metropolitan police, used to refer to their country colleagues as “Swedes”).
In 1966 England appointed its first colored policeman (a Coventry Pakistani). Upon independence every ex-British Caribbean island—Montsenat and Belize choosing to remain dependent—retained the death penalty by hanging. Throughout all of them, prison governors, prison staffs, police commissioners, police forces, and local criminal investigation departments are drawn from indigenous populations. This interrelatedness makes for efficiency in apprehension and conviction of criminals. When Scotland Yard officials arrived in Grenada last year searching for a West Indian fugitive who had killed his paramour in London, they were astonished to find him picked up by the local force within hours. Similarly, when the sometime governor-general of Bermuda, Richard Sharpies, a wartime friend of mine, was murdered while walking his dogs outside Government House, his three assassins (who had first strangled the dogs) were rapidly apprehended, tried, and hanged.
Throughout these islands due process seems to be scrupulously maintained. We do not amputate hands or shoot 66 drug dealers in the back of the neck without appeal in a day, as does China. The trial of the pro-Cuban revolutionaries who murdered Prime Minister Maurice Bishop of Grenada, together with most of his government, in 1983 lasted 90 days. The appeals, involving 14 attorneys (all Jamaican but for one Guyanese), went on for over seven years. As each was paid a thousand dollars a day for litigation, and was put up in the best hotel, their expenses threatened to bankrupt the country. In short, these are small democracies that believe the death penalty only fails to deter those whom it fails to deter. They are mostly agricultural and religious communities, and American television has only recently hit them (chiefly in tourist hotels, for the cost of a satellite dish is prohibitive).
St. Vincent recently hanged without incident a father-son robbery team guilty of murder, manslaughter, and conspiracy to murder. Jamaica has been holding close to a hundred on death row while, as I write, Trinidad is sequestering 113 Moslems on 15 capital charges each after the group’s seizure of the Port of Spain parliament building (the Red House) and the shooting in the leg of Prime Minister A.N.R. Robinson. Furthermore, most of these islands retain flogging, at least on the books under its perhaps more meliorative term of whipping, which is sometimes carried out in magistrates’ courts. In Grenada last November a 47year-old man was sentenced to seven years in prison and seven strokes of the cat for raping an 11-year-old girl, surely enough to satisfy Andrea Dworkin and the most extreme of the man-hating feminists (though the brutal instrument that ripped up the backs of the Mayfair Playboys in the 30’s is no longer employed). The Barbados cat, used on two rapists last year (one having raped his own daughter), consists of four or five hempen thongs. When in St. Lucia a short while ago a man was sentenced to have his whipping carried out publicly in the capital, Castries, half the population streamed into town to see it done, and it was accordingly ordered indoors. (One is reminded that Amnesty International is forever campaigning against the brutality of three strokes of the birch, in front of parents, on the Isle of Man, a fate any British schoolboy of my generation would laugh at.) Obscene language, of a far less obnoxious nature than that heard on any New York subway, is locally punishable and punished. In a society of total promiscuousness and “outside” children, the Windwards disallow Playboy and Penthouse. Officially, at least, our morals like our hems are high, and in the case of crime and punishment West Indians are the last Englishmen left around.
I watched the Maurice Bishop murder trial at close hand. The 14 apprehended (13 men and one woman) after the U.S. intervention of October 25, 1983, now Thanksgiving Day on the island, were accorded more than seven years of raucous appeals. The woman was the Jamaican wife of the group leader. Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard, and incidentally an heiress to the Tia Maria liqueur fortune. All but one were sentenced to death by hanging, Judge Dennis Byron of St. Kitts donning the black cap (actually a piece of material). On July II, 1991, the Grenadian Court of Appeals, under Barbadian Sir Frederick Smith, upheld all the convictions. The attorney general could not allow any further appeals and, no reprieve coming from the Crown, through Her Majesty’s representative on the island, Governor-General Sir Paul Scoon, those so sentenced had to hang, including the woman, a first for Grenada, though by no means for Trinidad. A short book called Yield to the Night purports to describe the last hanging of a woman in England, indeed a pitiful case. What followed in Grenada was some clumsy, even cowardly, footwork.
Carnival was on and effigies of the Coards were hung in Market Square. Clearly, the relatives of the innocent civilians killed in the massacre around the old fort wanted justice done. Equally clear was that neither the governor-general nor Prime Minister Nicholas Brathwaite had the stomach for it, least of all the swinging of a woman. The atmosphere was further inflamed by the highly placed clemency addicts on the island, as well as those off it, notably the militants in England and the likes of Congressman Mervyn Dymally in the United States, who formed ad hoc committees posing as larger voter bodies (Dymally’s as the whole of the U.S. Congress) and sent faxed petitions on behalf of the Coardites. Then Amnesty International got into the act, with rumors that Jesse Jackson was not far behind.
This was curious since none of these sensitive souls had seen fit to criticize our other islands, like Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad, or even little Dominica, which regularly hang criminals. Grenada, receiving the brunt of Amnesty International’s ire, had not used the noose for a decade. Nor does it have a hangman. The main newspaper on the island chimed in with these assiduous democrats, running an inflammatory story that claimed five of the condemned had been selected to be hanged at the dead of night, and that the Richmond Hill prison had gibbets, straitjackets, graves, and a priest all ready.
Of course, if five were hanged, then all had to be, including the woman. Equally, pardon Phyllis and you had to pardon the lot. A last-minute reprieve—from whom I have never discovered—is supposed to have saved the neck of the five selectees. I could find no hard evidence from my prison contacts that there was any truth in this story, put out by an editor who is a notorious anti-capital punishment crank and a lawyer who was in fact the attorney general of the revolutionary government. Radio Grenada ran a pro-clemency series with its stars being the hotheaded editor and his belligerent crony. The newspaper highlighted some melodrama about the black flag to be run up after any hanging. This hasn’t been done for years—in fact this century—in any British or ex-British possession. When Thomas Hardy introduced it to culminate the pathetic case of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, he was roundly chastised for having indulged in an anachronism.
In the event, putting his house under heavy guard, a scared Brathwaite made off to Antigua with his attorney general, leaving behind a tape commuting the death sentences. This was fairly contemptuous and should of course have been done through cabinet and parliament. It was also defensive, Brathwaite making a big point of communism being in abeyance as moving him to clemency—as if a crime were not a crime. That he was flying in the face of public support for the death penalty was clear when he admitted: “What appears to be a popular cry may not always be the best course for the country.” And when “Braff” returned to his island, he had of course to commute the death sentences of nine others who had nothing whatsoever to do with the Coards. As the chief justice hinted, it was a rough-and-ready de facto abolition of the death penalty, and Amnesty International was jubilant.
Brathwaite’s crony, Scoon, next locked Grenada into the OEGS (Organization of Eastern Caribbean States) Supreme Court system and rushed through on July 26 an act cited as “The Transfer of Convicted Offenders.” Under this act a sentencing country within the Commonwealth may, with the convicted offender’s agreement or request, transfer such person to another Commonwealth country, which will administer the sentence (or residue of same). Under this act the offender may apply for his or her transfer while being “a national of the administering country.” It is hard to see this maneuver as anything but a tailor-made blueprint for Phyllis Coard to return to her influential Leninist friends in Jamaica and stir up trouble there.
By chance I was at school in England with the son of the famous hangman Pierrepoint, who later dropped Joseph Kramer, the infamous “Beast of Belsen.” Typically curious about grisly affairs of the ilk, we boys were warned by our housemaster never to mention the matter, and we never did. Subsequently, I read the memoirs of both Pierrepoint and one of his assistants. The paraphernalia was minimal: none of the straitjacket stuff publicized by the excitable editor in Grenada, nor the body harness shown in the film In Cold Blood (it was used, when it was, for clemency’s sake if anything, to prevent the body from swinging as it fell and so effect a clean severance of the second from the third vertebra). I don’t think that in his whole career Pierrepoint, whose name was mischievously borrowed by Wyndham Lewis for a character in The Apes of God, knew a single stmggle on the way to the gallows, though one customer fainted with the hood on his head. Speed was of the essence in his procedure, and his prison “screws,” or warder assistants, were compassionate in the extreme, even to the point, apparently, of having to be exchanged by others who had not lived with the prisoner in his last hours, and so developed overtender sympathies. They invariably assured their charges, “You won’t feel a thing.” Of course, how did they know?
In the West Indies the hangman is usually not known, or is imported from other islands, often Trinidad, where recently such executioners went on strike for extra pay since theirs, they claimed, was a specialist occupation. Similarly, it is not always known that in his day, before he opened a celebrated pub, Pierrepoint was merely one of several such experts quietly summoned from some ordinary job to “give assistance” at Wormwood Scrubs or wherever. He seems to have seen his job as a necessary sanitary operation for the safety of society, to be got over with as fast as possible. Indeed, today’s readers of his and others’ memoirs can hardly help being struck by the casual, almost lackadaisical nature of his’ letters of assignment. They belong to another era, one which the West Indian islands have chosen to inherit, and Amnesty International to buck.