I’M GLAD THEY DIDN’T HANG MY SISTER’S KILLER
UNTIL JANUARY 1963 I was an ardent and vocal advocate of the abolition of the death penalty. I devoutly believed that executing murderers lowered all of us to the killers’ own level. Then my teenage sister was murdered, and suddenly I became an equally ardent and vocal advocate of capital punishment, and believed that even hanging was too good for the murderers among us. Now, more than three years later, I've changed my mind again, and I hope that by the time this appears in print our MPs will have abolished capital punishment in the free vote promised for the end of March.
It was my sister’s murder that made me believe that capital punishment fitted the crime for which it was tailored back in history. But it was the trial of the man who killed her that made me change my mind again, because as it dragged on it brought me face to face with the ugliness within myself, and taught me that I cannot support the killing of killers in any circumstances.
When you love someone, you prepare yourself for the eventuality of death. You try to imagine the loved one falling ill with pneumonia and dying, or you dread a head-on collision on the highway and a phone call from the police. You figure the odds and you create in-
I wanted his life in revenge -then I saw why he must not die
cidents like that in your imagination. But what you can’t prepare yourself for is the unimaginable: murder. Murder is always something that happens to someone else; and that’s why it hit me so hard when I learned about my sister’s death after a Boxing Day party. She had been my sweet little nineteen-year-old kid sister, eleven years my junior. Her name was Sandra, but she preferred to be called Sandi, and she liked practically every human being she ever met, particularly children. She would probably have become a children’s nurse had she lived. Now she was dead because she had accepted a ride home from a man she met at a party.
When I first heard Sandi was missing — it wasn't until a few days later that we really knew she'd been murdered — 1 was living in Toronto, working tor an advertising agency and thinking of getting married. My world was happy and full of all sorts of promise, and perhaps that fact made me feel the shock more deeply. And then, within a week, a twenty-four-year-old Vancouver mechanic named James English was arrested and charged with murder. The police believed he had thrown Sandi’s body from the Burrard Bridge in Vancouver. They were dragging Burrard Inlet and combing log booms up False Creek in an effort to find
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I was sick with anger: he must die
my sister's body. But they never did.
I sat in Toronto and wondered whether Sandi had fought back. Had she known what was happening? Had it been sudden? Had she tried to reason with this man? Had she screamed or called out for help? I would go for long lonely walks and hear her whimpering on the wind. I can remember feeling suddenly hot and sick with anger and rage and wanting to kill the man who killed Sandi, to get my own back and maybe ease my own grief.
The trial of Jim English began on Monday, March 25. I flew to Vancouver, partly to be with my brother and widowed mother, partly because I just had to know what really happened, and partly because of some halfformed notion that 1 must be on hand to see that justice was done. I arrived at the courtroom early and joined the people clustered before its doors. Many of them were merely curious, but others I knew would be testifying or taking their places on the jury, and I felt irrationally angry with them because they were talking about the weather or their own affairs and did not seem to know or care what this day meant for me.
The doors were opened by an attendant and I was among the first in so that I could take a seat in the balcony immediately above the dock and get a good look at this man English. A few moments later he was
brought into the room and escorted to the dock by an RCMP guard. There was a slight murmur from the crowd. I don’t remember what sort of images I had conjured up in the months since the murder, but suddenly I was struck by how ordinary English looked. His jaw had a firm cast to it and he combed his hair straight back without a parting, the same way I did. I figured he stood about five feet eight and weighed about one hundred and sixty pounds. He had broad shoulders and he carried himself well, back straight, head up. He wasn’t at all cocky, but he seemed determined and almost confident. Then an attendant said, “Order in the court,” and we all stood up as the judge, Mr. Justice R. A. Wootten, entered and took his seat. The charge was read. English pleaded not guilty.
I had never attended a murder trial before, or any other big court case for that matter, and so I wasn’t prepared for the slow formalities and the waiting — the waiting for jurors to be selected, waiting for them to be instructed by the judge, for the defense lawyer to shuffle and arrange his papers and consult in a whisper with the prosecutor. And while I waited I began to think back to the days before Sandi was killed and the arguments I had with many people about the death penalty.
It has to he abolished. Punishment after the fact is not prevention, I heard myself say.
Sure it is, someone seemed to argue back. It's logical. If a man thinks he's going to he strung up if he murders someone, he’ll think twice about it. But if he knows he's just going to be locked up. he won't be so careful. It stands to reason.
Yeah -— some reason. People used to chum the earth was flat because otherwise we'd fall off — they said that stood to reason, too. But prove to me the death penalty is a deterrent. Prove to me that murders will increase if we abolish capital punishment. Show me they'll increase fifty-two percent or a hundred and nine percent or whatever. Prove it. I dare you to try. Other countries have abolished the death penalty and their murder rate hasn't increased.
It's an ('Id argument, and my words sounded noble. I meant them then, but now . . . now my sister was dead and 1 no longer felt charitable. 1 sat there in the courtroom balcony, staring down at the neck of the man accused of killing her and I tried to understand murder. I couldn't, but I did try and I remembered the many arguments 1 and every other advocate of abolishing the death penalty had used.
I heard myself saying that capital punishment had to be abolished il only because an innocent man might hang. Justice is just a notion, 1 heard myself saying. It's only a system. It's as fallible as the humans who devised it. Innocent people have gone to jail for armed robbery right here in Canada and have had to be set free later. What if someone had been killed in one of those robberies? Sooner or later it will happen and an innocent man will be railroaded to the gallows. It's already happened elsewhere, in England certainly, and it may have already happened here.
And there’s the reply: "It’s a risk we have to take because you can’t handle thousands of eggs without breaking one or two." It may sound painfully naïve and callous, but there arc people who argue this way. And then there’s the question of a defense:
I would argue that a man who could not afford the finest lawyer stood less chance of getting justice than one who could pay for the best counsel, and I would be assured that everyone was entitled to legal aid. But did legal-aid systems employ the services of the best lawyers? And if they didn’t, could all men be equal before the law?
In fact, English, the accused murderer. was being defended via the legal-aid system by Hugh McGivern. reputedly one of the finest criminal lawyers in Vancouver. And as the parade of technical witnesses began that first day. I somehow felt resentful. His style was impeccable. How gently he chided a witness into admitting she wasn’t sure about a fact she had earlier sworn to; how outraged he became when another witness took time to consider his answer before making it. I wondered what right English had to be defended by a lawyer w hose words could seemingly melt ice. And I wondered how many murderers might be running loose in Canada because of adroit lawyers who had got them off on technicalities.
He said he couldn’t recall beating her... but she had died
The evidence against Lmglish mounted slowly. A photograph of a bite wound on a man’s ring finger was shown in evidence and a police photographer testified he took the picture of English's hand when he was arrested. A pair of Sandi’s panties was introduced, and a chemist testified the bloodstains on them matched the
stains found on the upholstery and roof of English’s car.
Some of the guests at that Boxing Day party in Vancouver’s Kitsilano district testified that it was there that Sandi first met English, who had been playing the guitar. She had, they said, got involved in an argument with a former boyfriend, but she was last
seen in the company of Jim English.
An old woman who kept clicking and sucking at her teeth was sitting behind me. As the story of the party unfolded — it sounded like a fairly ordinary affair — she would turn to her companion and say, “These young people — they’re all tramps, every one.’’ But I didn’t get angry. I was
too numb, and all I could do was wonder why it couldn't have been another girl, one with less personality, less promise. And I looked at the newspaper people in their privileged seats and wondered if one of them was the genius who conjured up the title of “The Baby Doll Murder Case" for a news-agency story that had splashed across the country a few days before the trial. I suppose he chose that title because my sister had dolls in her room. But she also had a copy of Overstreet’s The Mature Mind and some Shakespeare. You might think that nothing can wound you further after you’ve learned your sister has been murdered, but don’t underestimate the talents of some newsmen to make it even w'orse.
Then other friends of English stepped into the witness box to say he’d later told them that he and Sandi had driven around Stanley Park and parked the car and talked. They then drove to her home and parked again in the rear lane. He’d told these friends that the next thing he remembered was standing on the passenger side of the car, looking down at a girl lying half in and half out the door, covered with blood. He said he couldn’t remember beating her but found that he had a rock in his hand, and then, frightened, he started to drive the girl to hospital. But when she stopped breathing en route he drove instead to the Burrard Bridge and dumped her body over the rail.
Could I kill him?
It was still only prosecution evidence and open to challenge or denial by the defense. But for me it was enough to prove that English was guilty. My intuition had told me so in the beginning, and now the evidence confirmed it. It was then, I think, that I totally abandoned my old arguments against capital punishment. I took to sitting where I could stare directly down upon English in his dock. He had broad strong shoulders and large strong hands: my sister
couldn’t have had a chance, so why should he have one now? Why should the march of justice be so ponderously orderly? I began to plan to leap down on English from my balcony seat and break his neck.
He often sat forward with his head down and his back exposed to me. It was an inviting target. I used to do a lot of gymnastics and I was certain I could break his neck with the first blow of my feet. Failing that, I decided, I could bash his head against the corner of the dock before the RCMP guard could pull me off. It seemed likely I would succeed. I would be jumping from about eight feet above him and surprise would be on my side. And I couldn’t face the unbearable possibility that he might be found innocent on some technicality. or that some brilliant defense would get him off — that he might go free to live, to talk, think and feel. Most of all. I couldn’t bear the thought that he might go free to feel like any other human. He was no good and I wanted to see him dead. He was cruel and brutal and I wanted to hear the snap of his neck and feel his life in my hands. Legally, illegally — I didn’t give a damn how it happened.
Had he confessed without pressure?
I wanted revenge for Sandi. his eye for her eye, his tooth for her tooth. As 1 sat there, looking down at the short hairs curling on that man English's neck, I trembled.
And then something unexpected happened. There was some question about admitting as evidence his confession to the police. The jury had to be sent from the courtroom while the judge determined if English had made the confession voluntarily, or whether it had been pressured out of hint by the police. The defense lawyer put English on the witness stand anil asked him if he had confessed of his own free will. It was, of course, the crucial question. English paused for a split second, then answered. “Yes.” The lawyer tossed his pen on the desk with what seemed an air of exasperated finality. English had pretty well convicted himself.
The suspense was ended and my rage changed to jubilation. But only briefly. English stood there in the witness stand, mouth agape, trying to regain that composure I had earlier observed. His mouth moved but no wo ds came. He gripped the edge of the stand, and looked around as it to say: “Did I say something wrong?”
1 couldn’t remain jubilant. It was too pathetic. Suddenly I was flooded not so much with pity as with a kind of mockery at this poor fool trying to save his skin. Seeing him not as a monster but as a frightened, foolish
human being suddenly made me realize it was absurd to be lusting for his blood. Blood wouldn't bring my sister back: blood won't bring anyone back, ever.
So the confession was entered as evidence. Then the lawyers and the judge made their addresses to the jury and we waited three hours for them to find English guilty of noncapital murder, with a recommendation for leniency. The judge asked English to stand, and then pronounced the mandatory life sentence. English wiped at his eyes and was taken from the dock. The next day 1 left my family, grieving still, and flew back to Toronto.
Now', as the time and place have begun to fade into the distance. I see that for a short time I was a potential killer myself. Confronted first with my own sister's murder and then with her murderer, all my noble sentiments disappeared. 1 slavered at the mouth for blood, for revenge, just like those I condemn. I am not like that any more. This is not to say I'm now an advocate of the Christian quality of forgiveness: as I understand its principle 1 would have to be willing to embrace my sister's killer and say, “Thou art forgiven,” and this I am not prepared or able to do. I don't forgive James English, and I don't damn him. I just want to forget him.
1 know that there are those who will accuse me of being soft for still
being opposed to the death penalty. To those of you who still condone it without reservation, I can only say. I'm glad you are masters of yourselves and can be so sure you are right. But to those of you who still wonder about murder — as 1 still do — I suggest that whenever you hear of it and all its gruesome details, don’t let yourself he shocked into thinking of it in terms of inhuman deeds done by inhuman beasts. Sometimes the labels w'e apply to things influence our attitudes too much. You can’t take any act carried out by a human and call it inhuman. Cruel, yes. Brutal, yes. Insane, yes. Inhuman, no. James English was cruel and brutal and perhaps a little insane, but he was and is human. You can’t justify killing any man by calling him inhuman. If we are seriously trying to understand murder, maybe this is all we can ever understand: it is human and can't he prevented unless each of us lives on his own little island and stays there. Murder is social encounter gone haywire.
Perhaps some day we’ll be wiser. We might, for instance, come to know that as long as we have capital punishment we are making it easy for certain personality types to commit an elaborate form of public suicide. We might also realize that the outrage we feel over a murder is only a way we have of whittling down the enormity of our own wrongful deeds. We’ve all got the ruins of a few rotten acts hidden away somewhere. I know that I have, and if you show me the man who hasn't I'll show you a saint or a liar. When we call for capital punishment we are often saying, “I’ve done a few nasty things in my time, hut look at what this guy did. Compared to that, what I've done is nothing. Let’s get a rope and string the guy up.”
Behaviorists call it guilt transference, and for me this is the final argument against capital punishment: blood cannot erase guilt, it can only add to it. I cannot believe that two killings make a right, even when one of the people killed is your own sister ★