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Column: Don’t sanitize death-penalty discussion

The prison chaplain came home at dawn, his face haggard. Before he went to bed, Cyril Everitt told his grown son one thing about the hangings he’d just witnessed: “There was blood everywhere.” It was Toronto, Dec.

The prison chaplain came home at dawn, his face haggard. Before he went to bed, Cyril Everitt told his grown son one thing about the hangings he’d just witnessed: “There was blood everywhere.” It was Toronto, Dec. 11, 1962, the day of the last execution on Canadian soil.

One of the hangings became a near-decapitation. There’s at least a shadow of doubt, maybe more, about whether the man who nearly lost his head was even guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. It was a gruesome scene and those who witnessed it almost certainly carried it with them for the rest of their lives.

Yet for years, there was no mention of it in any of the public accounts and records. Even then, when hanging was legal, it was something secret and shameful. The hangman concealed his identity — not from the men he was about to kill, but from the rest of society.

The details of the deaths were kept secret and the corpses taken away in a disguised car to be buried in unmarked graves.

We’ve also done our best, as a country, to forget about the last hanging 50 years ago. Robert Hoshowsky, who wrote a good book about it a few years ago, suspects there’s something peculiarly Canadian about our memory failure.

Other countries, he notes, have celebrated their hangmen. Not Canada, although oddly enough, we did keep a hangman on the public payroll until 1985 at a cost of $200 a month. According to Hoshowsky’s research, the York County (Ontario) sheriff’s office believed capital punishment could come back any time, and didn’t want to lose a perfectly good hangman.

“It’s extremely unpleasant so therefore we don’t talk about it,” says Hoshowsky. But, he says, that’s what made him want to write his book, called The Last to Die: Ronald Turpin, Arthur Lucas and the End of Capital Punishment in Canada. “People need to know this.”

Turpin was born in Ottawa. Abandoned by his strange and abusive mother at 11, he ended up in the Guelph reformatory for juveniles. He was there for the infamous riot in 1952. He later said that after the guards and police got control of the place, they stripped Turpin and others, forced them to run down a corridor full of broken glass, lined with guards and officers wielding bats.

Ten years later, by then a severely alcoholic and paranoid petty criminal, Turpin shot Toronto police officer Frederick John Nash on Danforth Avenue.

Nash pulled him over, apparently because Turpin was wanted for another crime.

How it all happened has never been clear.

There was a struggle, there were two guns, and both men were shot. Nash died, leaving behind a young family and a justifiably outraged city.

Arthur Lucas wasn’t much like Turpin on the surface — he was black and American, whereas Turpin was white and Canadian. But he, too, had a rough childhood. He was orphaned at eight, and he, too, became a career criminal — a pimp who reportedly beat up the prostitutes who worked for him. He had an IQ of 63, and was described by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons as “unsalvageable.”

In 1962, criminal-turned-police informant Therland Crater and prostitute Carolyn Newman were found brutally murdered in a house in Toronto. Lucas was easily extradited from the U.S. and tried for Crater’s murder before an all-white jury (Toronto was mostly white then). He knew Crater, but the evidence against him was circumstantial and the witnesses unreliable. He insisted on his innocence right up to the end.

“My gut tells me Arthur Lucas was innocent,” says Hoshowsky.

Both Turpin and Lucas were represented by the same lawyer through legal aid, a talented 29-year-old hotshot with few resources and a serious drinking problem. The black pimp and the cop killer he was representing were the defendants in his first and second murder trials.

Let’s be clear: No one would have wanted to meet either Ronald Turpin or Arthur Lucas in a dark alley. But that doesn’t make it any easier to read about their deaths in the gallows room at the Don Jail.

The Don Jail was built in 1864. It’s quite the place, with a carving of Father Time over the front door and cast-iron serpents supporting the balconies. It’s been vacant since 1977, and is now being renovated to become an administrative building for the Bridgepoint Hospital.

A hospital spokesman says the gallows room will be preserved, and there will be opportunities for organized visits.

In 1962, Sheriff Philip Ambrose told the Toronto Star, later quoted in Hoshowsky’s book, that Lucas and Turpin died calmly: “These people had died at least five times before — when the police caught them, when they were tried, when they were found guilty, when they were sentenced, with each appeal and when cabinet refused to commute their sentence.”

That’s the thing that is so horrifying about capital punishment — not the moment of death, as clinical or brutal as it may be, but the time leading up to it. The immutability of it, the slow torture, is like being buried alive.

I might be able to live with the idea of the state killing people, but I don’t like the idea of the state torturing them. The problem isn’t the guillotine, as Dostoyevsky wrote in his novel The Idiot, but that the “preparations are so dreadful.”

They might deserve to die, or at least some of them might. But the function of government is not to give individuals the fates they deserve.

Lucas and Turpin were the last of the 710 people Canada has executed. The tide of public opinion was already shifting in 1962. From 1963 on, it became routine for sentences to be commuted.

During that period, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, Canada’s homicide rate more than doubled. At the time, this was fodder for proponents of the death penalty: Canada stopped hanging people and the murder rate soared.

But after we put the practice into law and officially abolished the death penalty for murder in 1976, the homicide rate actually started to drop. It’s been on the decline ever since. (In 1998, Canada also removed capital punishment from the National Defence Act, so there are no longer any capital crimes here, even for treason.)

In the U.S., the homicide rate — which has always been much higher than in Canada, even back in the 1960s — also jumped during those years when the baby boomers were entering adulthood. But in the U.S., unlike here, it stayed high until the 1990s.

What this suggests is that whatever factors go into determining a murder rate, capital punishment is not foremost among them. Canada’s homicide rate has dropped back down almost to where it was in the mid-1960s, when murderers might have expected to be hanged, as Lucas and Turpin were.

In 1962, law professor Desmond Morton wrote in the Globe and Mail: “I believe that the taking of life is only justifiable where the necessity can be demonstrated.”

Half a century later, there doesn’t seem to be any necessity for capital punishment. Even so, polls in recent years suggest that anywhere from one-half to two-thirds of Canadians believe the death penalty is appropriate in certain cases.

We need to learn our history, so that when we talk about this question, it isn’t sanitized or abstract.

It is to be hoped that even if we did bring back the death penalty, it wouldn’t be death by hanging — a method that sometimes went very wrong, as it did in Lucas’s case.

Even so, the cases of Lucas and Turpin are reminders that coldblooded killing is always a grim business, and that cases that look open and shut at the time may look a little less so to history.