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Thursday, January 22, 2015

There are no endings, only beginnings

I can write this now, because he is dead.

In the mid-1990s, I was commissioned by Terry Clegg to write a pilot for a TV project. I don’t drop Terry’s name lightly. He’s retired now, but even the most cursory search would reveal that Terence A Clegg brought some of the finest British films to the screen, usually in tandem with Lord Attenborough, with whom he had a long and brilliant association. When the man who produced Gandhi comes calling, you pay attention.

The project I was engaged to write was a drama based on the memoirs of Albert Pierrepoint, probably Britain’s best-known public executioner. The Pierrepoint name is synonymous with death by hanging in Britain: Albert’s father and Uncle Tom both did the job before him. Albert – a cheery publican who was popular with his regulars and a great man for singing a song – escorted some of Britain’s most notorious villains to the scaffold. He was also known for his work in the immediately post-war Germany, where many of those convicted of war crimes and sentenced to hang were executed by him. In an oddly resonant way, he had a fleeting link to my own family. My mother, a German civilian working for the then occupying British forces in Germany, processed Albert through the equivalent of Arrivals at RAF B├╝ckeburg in Lower Saxony, probably on his way to Hameln, where 190 men and 10 women were eventually executed under his jurisdiction.

But this post is not about them, or about Ruth Ellis, or about any of the famous/infamous unfortunates Albert helped on their way to the next place. This post is about me and another lost soul.

In writing what eventually sprawled to scripts for six two-hour episodes based on Albert Pierrepoint’s life and work, I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into the minutiae of death by hanging and the mechanics of breaking someone’s neck by dropping them through a hole. If it sounds soulless, it’s because it must have been. Each candidate for execution had to be weighed and measured, to calculate the length of the drop. Sandbags would be hung on the rope overnight beforehand to stretch it to its optimum length to do the job cleanly. As I waded through photocopies of Albert’s notebooks and tables of figures, I realised that I had to objectify the dead. Their role in this drama was only to provide context. The theatre derived not from their misfortunes and tragedies but from the process by which their own lives were ended. The dead were, in a way, simple props used to dress the set on which Albert lived.

It was this realisation that made me stop and consider what I was doing. Underneath each execution was a human story, usually a tragedy. By stripping the condemned of their humanity and equating them with bags of sand, I realised that I was losing my own.

While the writing continued, I pursued a parallel agenda to rebalance myself. Even in these days when the internet was a relatively new thing, I was able to use it to find directories of Death Row prisoners who were seeking pen pals. I wanted to connect with someone in that situation. I needed to remind myself that whatever they had done, they were human beings too, as frail, vain and ridiculous as me. It was a selfish whim perhaps, to regain my own balance by reaching out a human hand to someone who had been reduced, in the same way I had reduced their historical counterparts, to weights, measures and numbers.

I struck up a correspondence with #999149. I’ll not use his name, it’s not really relevant. You can find out easily enough through the Texas Department of Criminal Justice website, should you wish. I wrote him a non-committal but upbeat letter and waited.

Some weeks later, I got a reply and that began a chain of correspondence that fulfilled my selfish needs and, to a degree, his. I learned he had a child he rarely saw that was born after his arrest and incarceration. I learned that he was a talented sketch artist with an interest in dark things. I sent him money occasionally – airmail stamps cost money and $10 to an inmate is a fortune and is not much to me. He sent me a drawing. We never discussed his crimes or his appeals. Everything that passed between us was read by the authorities and our correspondence was based on that understanding. So, conscious in part of what he was alleged to have done and of the fact that he had been tried and convicted, I never asked any questions.

I learned that the densities of black and Hispanic inmates, particularly on Death Row, are much higher than in the general population outside. I learned that the possibilities for self-improvement or redemption for inmates are scant. And on Death Row, at the end of all this denial and oppression is the final denial itself. That’s the system.

#999149 and I kept up our correspondence. His big issue never overshadowed his little ones. He was interested in mine. Two men rapping about their families. What could be more natural? Through our correspondence I realised that violent crime is never inevitable, that in societies where success is measured by how much stuff you can acquire and where opportunity doesn’t knock very often if you’re poor, the easy-looking path must sometimes be appealing. I should point out that #999149’s conviction was for a violent coke-fuelled robbery that went tragically wrong. It was the pursuit of easy money that brought #999149 to Death Row. I would not have been able to correspond with anyone who derived gratification from the act of killing in itself.

And so I came full circle. I delivered my scripts (nothing ever came of them), #999149 delivered my balance. As I got to the point of being OK with myself about capital punishment again, I diverted myself by looking more closely into what #999149 had done. I shouldn’t have. While he never lied to me, I discovered (damn you, internet) that the foundation of our relationship was built on sand. There was a lot more darkness in #999149’s soul than he could allow himself to reveal. The main criterion considered by prosecutors seeking the death penalty is the ongoing threat to society if the offender was to be released. I understood, chillingly, why #999149 would not receive any mitigation in that regard. All his appeals failed.

But we’re not the jury here. I made my own judgement. Based on what I had newly discovered, I brought our correspondence to a close. That’s another denial. My decision to stop corresponding was harsh perhaps. Selfish? Definitely. I felt used and angry. My liberal rage against state murder was overlaid by fear and, frankly, a little revulsion. Now, with distance and sharpened by the fact that a man I kind of knew was killed on purpose, I'm solid on my opposition to capital punishment again.

I kept an eye on my former correspondent #999149. Maybe his sentence would be commuted after all. Would he have learned enough in the care of the TDCJ to avoid the wrong path if he had ever been released? We’ll never know now, because as of  about 12:31am our time 22 January 2015, he is dead.