If the Canadian people are hot for a lynching, who is Allmand to say them nay?

George Jonas June 14 1976

If the Canadian people are hot for a lynching, who is Allmand to say them nay?

George Jonas June 14 1976

If the Canadian people are hot for a lynching, who is Allmand to say them nay?

George Jonas

“Please, judge, hang him!” wrote a London, Ontario, woman after a recent murder trial. A sick response? Commented the trial judge: “It’s only human to react emotionally to murder. There’s a lot of emotion on the other side, too. Those abolitionist fellows are not above cooking the books either.”

His lordship has a point. The London lady may not be motivated by classical logic and pure reason, but then Solicitor General Warren Allmand himself sounds more intestinal than cerebral on the subject. One of his better-known gut reactions goes like this: “I won’t be associated in any way with a hanging. It’s an obscene and degrading measure ... You just don’t hang a person and solve all the problems.” Now there’s an insight: hanging doesn’t solve all the problems. The question is, does it solve some?

As Oshawa, Ontario Crown Attorney Bruce Affleck tells it, there was a young man recently who shot his parents, then surrendered his still loaded rifle to an approaching policeman. When asked why he didn’t shoot the cop as well, he replied with disarming honesty: “Because I don’t want to hang.” In practice he ran little risk of hanging, but how was the poor fellow to know that? One Ontario policeman may be alive today because some killers are not yet sophisticated enough to realize our Solicitor General would rather resign than uphold the law he introduced himself in parliament. Perhaps improved educational programs ƒ> ^ in prison would solve this prob-

lem, if no others. Of course Allmand isn’t alone. “I feel the cabinet supports me,

I feel my caucus supports me ... In fact, I feel more understanding and support on Parliament Hill than from people across Canada.” A very perceptive remark. Public opinion polls show about 81 % of Canadians in favor of retaining the death penalty. But then our Prime Minister’s expressive shoulders seem to have been made for shrugging off such matters. “Responsible government,” he commented engagingly, “doesn’t work by public opinion polls or referendums.” That should put us in our place. One election every four years is more than we deserve. Popular sentiment doesn’t cut much ice with Allmand either. “I’d be more interested in one good argument,” he said, one-upping Le Duc de Sussex Drive, “than 1,000 signatures on a petition.”

Hmm. What are Allmand’s own arguments? He says: “Execution doesn’t erase the crime of murder.” True. Neither does prison. Nothing erases the crime of murder. Should we, by an extension of this logic, punish it with nothing? Allmand says: “We know that most types of violent crime are not deliberately or rationally planned.” Maybe, but nobody gets hanged for them either. Canadians want to retain the death penalty only for deliberate, rationally planned murder. Says the Solicitor General: “An examination of the evidence . . . indicates that capital punishment does not effectively lower the murder rate.” A misstatement of fact. In 1975, when Allmand said this, Dr. Isaac Erlich’s reputable study (among others) was already published, casting serious doubts on this bit of orthodoxy. On an empirical level the murder rate in Canada has increased since 1962, the last time capital punishment was implemented, by about 42% (from 1.7 per 100,000 population to 2.4).

Now, as requested by Allmand, some arguments in lieu of another 1,000 signatures. One: without the death penalty everyone currently serving a life sentence would become, like 007, licensed to kill. No one can be sentenced to life twice, but those serving one life sentence can and sometimes do murder fellow convicts, prison guards, or anyone who stands in their way. Two: not even Charles Dickens would have expected the law to become such an ass as to offer incentives to killers. Yet under Allmand a person facing life imprisonment for armed robbery or another major crime would actually benefit by killing a witness or a policeman. It would increase his chances of escape and make no

difference to his punishment. (Of course we all know how this problem would be solved by the more-enlightened-than-thou crowd: reduce penalties for armed robbery, rape, and other bagatelles. Vide, the Law Reform Commission recommendations: no life imprisonment, no prison for most property crimes, and three-year maximums for those unlikely to murder again.) Finally, as one deputy police chief puts it, “My cops don’t mind facing guns; it’s facing the same guns that bugs them.” What he is talking about is the myth that murderers seldom repeat their crime. It may be true enough of domestic and other impulsive killers (who would never face the gallows anyway) but it’s emphatically untrue of the pros. They are the ones who would actually hang if the death penalty were retained, and so they should.

If Allmand says they shouldn’t, what are the solutions he offers? “Better trained policemen . . .” Did Constables Gabriel Labelle, Leslie Maitland or James Lothian die because they had not been trained well enough? “Better equipped policemen .. .” The cops in Detroit look like invaders from outer space. You can’t equip them any better short of giving each a Doomsday Machine, but Detroit is still Murder City (and Montreal is catching up). “Effective gun control . . . possible restrictions on the showing of violence on television . . .” Don’t give us more laws, Allmand; put some teeth into the ones we have. Laws regulate the law-abiding: it’s the teeth that bite crooks. Judy LaMarsh can’t protect us from people who go to pieces over Kojak. Gun control might, perhaps, reduce impulsive violence, but it has zero effect on those who kill in cold blood for greed or lust. “Social and economic programs to remove the causes of crime ...” Fine. We’ve been doing that for 20 years while crime got steadily worse, but let’s continue. “Promote respect for legitimate authority in the home, the school... and government.” By all means. One way of doing this is to hang convicted murderers.

The English legal philosopher Sir James Fitzjames Stephen observed that if murder could be prevented by the fine of one shilling it would still break the moral bonds of society to impose only a one-shilling fine on murderers. Of course a life sentence is not a shilling (nor is it a life sentence) but to many Canadians it still seems a cut-rate price tag on their own lives. When people feel undervalued, the moral bonds of society begin to show the strain.

George Jonas is a CBC producer and author of three books of poetry