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Death by hanging (They were hanged; Hitler's Englishman).

I have recently read three non-fiction crime books that tell of individuals tried for offences punishable by death. Such works naturally lend themselves to strong dramatic narration of the crime, the trial and its aftermath. They also provide author and reader with the opportunity to meditate on the wisdom of capital punishment.

The attitude of the Canadian public towards murderers has no doubt hardened in recent years, so contemplation of the validity of reinstating the ultimate punishment for serious crimes is not an idle pastime. Alan Hustak's They Were Hanged (1987) is a solid, journalistic account of the last individuals to face capital punishment in each of the provinces (except Newfoundland). Also included is the story of the last woman executed in Canada, Marguerite Pitre. The book ends with the deaths of Arthur Lucas and Ron Turpin, hung in the old Don Jail in Toronto in 1962.

The book begins with a short but valuable introduction, providing the no-holds-barred views of the author: "The death penalty is brutal, degrading and real." Hustak refers to the historic vote in the House of Commons on June 30, 1987, where a motion that would have led to the reinstatement of capital punishment was rejected. He adds, "Should it have been reinstated, it would have ensnared not only the guilty but the innocent as well."

Hustak sets the debate over the issue in a useful historical context. Canada abolished the death penalty in 1976. A fact not cited by Hustak is that under British law applicable in Canada until 1859 some 230 offences, including stealing turnips and being found disguised in a forest, were punishable by death.

The book makes little attempt at profundity, instead offering straightforward but compelling arguments against the use of the death penalty in modern society. In a later chapter, we learn of the efforts in 1946 in Saskatchewan to prevent the legal execution of Jack Loran, a 17 year old convicted of a senseless slaying. Despite evidence of a horrendous upbringing and clear mental deficiency, Loran was found to be sane for legal purposes. The King government was unmoved by the pleas of Premier Tommy Douglas and others to commute the sentence. Douglas pointed out the unfairness of exacting the death penalty from a boy too young to vote.

We are told the tale of Robert Rae Cook, the last man executed in Alberta, and of Leo Mantha, a sailor convicted in BC of murdering his male lover in a case bearing the ingredients of manslaughter, at most. Hustak emphasizes that it is not the convicted persons alone who pay a price; lawyers and judges as well as family members have all too often had their lives irremediably darkened.

For those wishing a more detailed account of the stormy life and death of Robert Cook, there is a new book out, The Work of Justice, by Jack Pecover (WolfWillow Press). This is the story of how Cook was convicted in two separate trials of murdering his father. It should be pointed out that his father, step-mother and five siblings were all found dead at the scene. Cook also achieved notoriety for his daring escape from the Ponoka mental institution.

Pecover deserves full marks for his thorough research. Unfortunately, I found the language at times stilted and the book to lack sound organization. The mass of detail and the speculations of the author could well have been pruned in order to allow a more compelling narrative to emerge. Nonetheless, those interested in the case will want to read the book.

The last of the trio, Hitler's Englishman: The Crime of Lord Haw-Haw (Penguin, 1993), by Francis Selwyn, is the best and most intriguing. This is a highly literate account of one of the most fascinating and sinister political figures to be catapulted into prominence in that "low, dishonest decade" - the 1930s. Selwyn adroitly provides us with the scarifying life of William Joyce and a social history of an extraordinary time in British life.

We are told of how Joyce moved to England from America with his family and lived thereafter as if he were a British subject, although officially remaining an American citizen. From London University, he entered the rough and tumble world of street politics, receiving an ugly scar from a knife in one altercation. He developed a fanatical antisemitism and commitment to fascism from which he would never retreat. He became a key lieutenant in Oswald Mosley's British Fascist Union.

In 1939, Joyce renewed his British passport in order to travel to Berlin, reiterating his claim to be a British subject. He offered his oratorical skills to Goebbels' notorious Nazi Propaganda ministry and broadcast passionately pro-Nazi messages throughout the war years. It is said that these broadcasts ("Jairmany calling! Jairmany calling!") occasioned more amusement than danger, although the extent of their effects would be difficult to gauge. Joyce's intention to undermine the British war effort was obvious.

Selwyn takes us from the last days of the war to the dramatic capture of Joyce and his trial. There was little doubt that his acts amounted to treason at law, assuming he owed allegiance to Britain. The legal issue thus hung on whether he could be said to owe allegiance on the basis of his claim to be a subject and his obtaining a passport, which placed him under the protection of the Crown. The defence argued that even if he owed some allegiance, that ended when his chose to take up residence in Germany. The argument was rejected and Lord Haw-Haw received the only sentence possible - death by hanging. This was not commuted.

The book brilliantly conveys the atmosphere of the trial in a bleak, bombed-out London in the winter of 1946. It contains a lively discussion of the flaws of the treason laws and the tendency of capital punishment to make martyrs out of those convicted of the crime. I must say that Selwyn fails to convince me that Joyce somehow should not have been tried for treason at all. I do agree that the British law of treason was archaic and that the death penalty was and is excessive. For a superb account of strange times, an even stranger man, and the workings of a rather moth-eaten law, you can't go wrong with Hitler's Englishman.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Legal Resource Centre of Alberta Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Robert J. Normey
Date:Oct 1, 1996
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