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Perspective: Post-modernism? No, revenge is still as sweet for the state.

Byline: David Wilson

Last Wednesday, I started the new semester with my introductory lecture in criminology linking the origins and development of the prison with modernity.

This is an old and favourite subject of mine, and the trick is to try and get the students to see that modernity - the idea that civilisation progresses through reason and science - and its application to prison is bogus. And while prison and punishment may have become less barbaric and public, aimed not at punishing the body but at punishing the soul, it is nonetheless good old fashioned punishment all the same.

Some ten hours earlier in Texas, British-born Jackie Elliott was executed in what is undoubtedly one of the worst miscarriages of justice perpetrated in a country known for its miscarriages of justice.

Many believe Jackie Elliott was not just innocent of the crime for which he remained on death row for 16 years, but was also the victim of a judicial game of state politics. This is a case where the presiding judge - Jon Wisser, who was due to hear DNA evidence that would havedemonstrated Jackie's innocence - wrote to the local media, the local DA and the Texas Pardons and Parole Board calling for the execution before hearing the evidence that was to be put before him.

As Jackie's lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith commented, 'It is very difficult to see how any reasonable person could believe that he (the judge) would be fair in Jackie's DNA hearing when, without having heard the first shred of our newly-discovered evidence of innocence, he would say that to the press.'

Perhaps we have to conclude that 'reasonable' people don't inhabit Texas, for if they did how could they ignore the following pieces of evidence in Jackie's case:

The main prosecution forensic witness was subsequently exposed as a fraud, having later given evidence which was discredited in another case.

The main prosecution eye witness against Jackie was also the other main suspect.

It was this prosecution witness's motorcycle chain belt that was used as the murder weapon.

Key evidence had not been DNA tested using today's technology.

At Jackie's original trial his two court-appointed lawyers were a corporate attorney and a tax lawyer - neither of whom had ever handled a murder case.

Nonetheless Jackie was executed by lethal injection - which I understand from Andie Lambe, Director of Reprieve, took seven minutes before concluding its deadly business.

Punishment and modernity? We might like to kid ourselves, but judicial murders such as Jackie Elliott's should remind us that what we are witnessing - in the USA and elsewhere - is not postmodernism in punishment but a return to pre-modernity, where revenge is extracted on the bodies of those who have been accused and convicted, and where guilt and innocence are subject to the vagaries of those who have power and are seeking political advancement.

Of course we shouldn't just accept this state of affairs, and if you are interested and care enough about justice, not just in Texas but everywhere else that has retained the death penalty, then contact Reprieve by e-mailing or

David Wilson is Professor of Criminal Justice at UCE.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 11, 2003
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