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‘A Brush with the cruelty of death row’ by David Pannick QC

Times Law Section. A  response from a legal viewpoint to the ‘Exonerate Jack’ Exhibition at Somerset House, London.

According to W.H. Auden, “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters”. Simone Sandelson’s modern paintings masterfully illuminate the suffering endured by Jack E. Alderman, a prisoner on death row in Georgia in the US for the past 32 years. The paintings can and should be seen at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, Northwest London, from April 2 until May 5.

In June 1975 Alderman, then aged 24, was convicted of the murder of his wife, Barbara. He was an assistant manager at the Piggly Wiggly supermarket in Chatham County, Georgia. She worked in the tax assessor’s office in Savannah. The prosecution case was that in order to claim on his wife’s insurance policy, Alderman arranged for an accomplice, John Brown, to come to their home and hit Barbara over the head with a wrench. Alderman then placed his hands over his wife’s nose and mouth until she was unconscious. The men drove Barbara in the family car to a creek and left it there, with Barbara’s body in the driver’s seat.

When the police interviewed Alderman early the next morning, his wife’s blood was on his clothes. His defence was that when he came home, his wife was not there, he assumed she was at a relative’s house, he was driving there when he saw her car in the creek, he found her body, cradled her head and fled in shock. John Brown gave evidence incriminating himself and Alderman.

Jack Alderman was sentenced to death. Since 1975 he has been waiting to be executed while appeals, both state and federal, have been brought, rejected and reconsidered. The United States Supreme Court refused to hear the case in 1978, 1980, 1985, 1988, 1994 and 2002. Unless the Governor of Georgia intervenes, Jack Alderman will be executed in May.

He has refused to plea bargain to save his life because it would require admitting what he continues to deny: that he killed his wife. But his guilt or innocence has long since ceased to be the point in his case. A civilised society does not torture prisoners, however appalling the crimes of which they have been convicted, and however strong the evidence against them. And to keep a prisoner on death row, waiting to kill him, for 32 years is undoubtedly torture. There are many arguments against capital punishment. But if legal murder is to be done, it must be done quickly. Years of delay while the legal process runs its course make capital punishment more cruel than death itself. Such a lapse of time means, as Dostoyevsky asserted in The Idiot, that “murder by legal process is immeasurably more dreadful than murder by a brigand”.

It is deeply troubling that the state of Georgia can believe that it is right to execute a man after 32 years. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago, his epic indictment of Stalinist penology, found appalling that a man should be kept on death row for more than a few weeks. He suggested that “the record stay in a death cell” was that of geneticist N.I. Vavilov, who “waited several months for his execution — yes, maybe even a whole year”. In Plato’s Phaedo we are told that it was only because of the “sacred season” of the year that “Socrates lay in prison and was not put to death until long after he was condemned” — in fact 30 days.

The state of Georgia responds by pointing out that death row prisoners are not obliged to bring appeals that delay their own execution. But this argument was answered by the judicial committee of the Privy Council when it ruled in 1993 that it was unlawful for Jamaica to execute offenders after a “shocking” delay of 14 years since the sentence of death was imposed. Lord Griffiths explained that “it is part of the human condition that a condemned man will take every opportunity to save his life through the use of the appellate procedure”. If the legal system takes years to address the appeals, “the fault is to be attributed to the appellate system that permits such delay and not to the prisoner who takes advantage of it”.

Simone Sandelson, a portrait painter working in London, has corresponded with Jack Alderman for two years. His letters and poems have inspired her to create a powerful set of images. They are compelling evidence of the damage done to the victims of this tragedy: Barbara, Jack and the reputation of the legal system in Georgia. Reprieve, the human rights organisation, is raising funds to fight the execution of Jack Alderman and others on death row. More information can be obtained from www.exoneratejack.org

Auden noted that the Old Masters knew that suffering “takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”. As we eat our breakfast, travel to work, or relax, Simone Sandelson’s campaign to end the suffering of another human being deserves our support.

The author is a practising barrister at Blackstone Chambers in Temple and a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford

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