Living with the gallows in Trinidad

The Guardian, July 5 1983
Published as Mrs Thatcher's government attempted to restore the death penalty

“This afternoon I was told that my plea was turned down. I am to die in the morning. Kind of quick, you may think… I am very tired, my friend. I look forward, in a way, to the long sleep… I will appreciate very much if you would be so kind as to tell my friends that I am dead.”

Stanley Abbott wrote that letter to his London solicitor, Mrs Gareth Pierce, on April 26 1979, in Port of Spain prison, Trinidad. At seven o’clock the next morning, he was hanged on the gallows at the end of the cell block where he had spent the last seven years fighting his death sentence.

Mr Abbott was one of hundreds of men and women who have been sentenced to death in the British Commonwealth since hanging was stopped in Britain in 1964. Through the appeal procedure of the Privy Council ,the British judiciary has sanctioned many of the sentences.

Their experience has done nothing to quell the fears of lawyers who oppose capital punishment. Mrs Pierce, who has acted for six Commonwealth clients sentenced to death, said: “Throughout the process, there is room for discretion – by the prosecution, the judge, the jury, the Home Secretary, the appeal courts. That means there is room for caprice and mistakes.”

Mr Abbott’s case highlights the delicate balance of opinion among the judges, who could not agree among themselves whether he should die. He had been convicted of helping members of a community run by Michael X in Trinidad to murder an English woman, Gail Benson. He said he had taken part in the murder only because Michael X had threatened to kill him and his mother if he refused.

In London, the Privy Council had to decide whether such a defence of duress applied to murder as it does to other crimes. Lord Hailsham, Lord Kilbrandon and Lord Salmon conceded that the law might be wrong but decided that he must die. In a scathing minority opinion, Lord Wilberforce and Lord Edmund-Davies said this

view was illogical, baffling and an evasion of the issue. Abbott died.

Mrs Pierce said: “Stanley Abbott was in his forties, but he looked older than his 80-year-old mother. His hair was completely white. He had spent seven years on death row with the gallows at the end of the corridor, and in his own mind he’d been hanged every day of those seven years.”

Michael X, who died on the same gallows in 1974, described in an affidavit the atmosphere of the hangings. Death warrants were read to condemned men on Thursday afternoons: “A senior prison officer would enter through a door and pace up and down along the passageway and then at some time stop at the cell of the person who is to be executed on the following Tuesday.

“He starts with the word ‘Greetings’ then reads the execution warrant and concludes by offering the condemned man the food of his choice… The condemned men chant hymns throughout Thursday night and by Monday night all the prisoners join in the ‘wake’ for their short-lived brother.

“A strange white hood is placed over his head, which gives him the appearance of being a member of the Ku Klux Klan. At seven o’clock he is then executed, and the flying of the trap is distinctly heard by the other men. We have heard it being greased every day since the reading of the warrant.”

In another affidavit to the Privy Council, the prison chaplain who had witnessed some 80 executions criticised the dirty, cramped death cells, the monotony of life on death row, the “intense mental anguish of living by the gallows” and the morbid curiosity of local people and newspapers.

Mrs Pierce’s fears about caprice and mistakes were revived by the case of two youths who had been sentenced to death in Port of Spain for killing a man during a robbery. After visiting them she established that they were too young to be executed.

She said: “If there is any logic to hanging, it has to depend on the whole system being perfect at every stage. This is not the case.”