Why Is America 50 Years Behind the Times When It Comes to the Death Penalty?

Fifty years ago today, the last executions took place in England. A pair of young men were hung at the same time, though in different prisons. I do not remember these executions, but I do remember when it became clear they were going to be the last.

The hanging I do remember vividly was of a man named James Hanratty a short while before. He was a handsome 25 year-old with a low IQ. There was some doubt as to whether he was the right man. The woman he had allegedly raped and shot after killing her boyfriend survived. She identified someone else with absolute certainty before she later identified James. It was a horrible crime committed alongside a road at night.

My parents were against the death penalty and thought it might be abolished soon, perhaps even in time to save Hanratty. As the hour of his execution approached, they turned on the radio to listen to reports from outside the prison, to see if there'd be a reprieve. I was a child. I'm not sure why I was allowed to stay. It was as fascinating and gruesome as God and the Devil, heaven and hell. Implacable forces were at work, cruel consequences beyond imagination.

To me, no killing could be more macabre or merciless than the killing of this young captive James. A respectable man had conducted the prosecution. Twelve respectable people had reached a verdict. A respectable man had sentenced James to death. The hangman was named Harry Allen, and when he wasn't executing people he ran a pub and told his customers his conscience never troubled him. I knew men who looked like these men.

I sat and listened with my parents and imagined Hanratty's mum and dad waiting for the same news. I imagined an inescapable cell in the prison, thick stone walls, grim functionaries of the state looming over a shivering young man. I did not know it, but hangings were done swiftly in those days. The executioner and his assistant would hurry into the cell where the condemned man was being held, tie his arms behind his back, hustle him through a doorway, stand him on the trapdoor and drop him instantly. Sometimes the dance from start to finish -- from first touch to last twitch -- took a mere ten seconds.

I don't know how long it took Harry Allen to rush James Hanratty to his death, but I remember the BBC announcing it was over, and I remember a hollow feeling, a feeling of disgust, a feeling of -- in retrospect -- complicity.

Hanratty was guilty and evil. I was innocent and good. He was being killed to protect me. Even as a child -- no, particularly as a child -- I was involved in his death. Perhaps this is what makes an execution so fascinating, so compelling. A killing is done in our name and we get away with it. I remember it clearly. It was terrifying and gruesome, but it was also thrilling: thrillingly violent, thrilling as a horror film, thrilling as a fatal car crash. Everything about it appealed to the worst and cruelest part of me, even as the better part cringed.

The last two men to be hung were hapless losers who killed a man on April 7th, 1964 and were hung for it on August 13th of the same year, just over three months later. One of them was twenty-one. Unlike Hanratty, they were clearly guilty and they got little press. No one knew they'd be the last, but they were. It was over. The murder rate did not go up. There was no increase in compensatory revenge killings now the state was out of the business.

When execution ended in my country, a shadow faded. Something grim and primitive was gone. There's still violence and murder in England, of course, but its citizens -- including children -- no longer have to be accomplices in the most premeditated of all killings.

The death penalty is now banned in almost all of Europe, prohibited by both the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and by the European Convention on Human Rights of the Council of Europe. Several European countries banned execution decades before England did. If England went back to it, it would have to leave the European Union. It would be shunned.

No country is closer to America than England. America was England until it fought for independence so as to become a democracy. Every democratic nation on earth owes a debt of gratitude to America for its bold step toward modernity. And yet now, when almost every other democracy on earth has given up this archaic practice, America continues to slay its criminals alongside -- but less humanely and effectively than -- the Taliban.

And the civilized world watches in embarrassment.