Clare Duffy

“Not for the faint-hearted”- how do you advertise the position of state executioner?

on 15 April 2010

Death row - cell

That’s a question that Chikurubi Prison would dearly love the answer to. The Zimbabwean Maximum Security unit has been searching for a hangman for the last five years without success

This is perhaps surprising given that the national unemployment rate is 94% and that the job requires no previous experience or qualifications. It must surely be the only unwanted job in Zimbabwe!

Admittedly, the job description is hardly appealing: “The job of a hangman is reserved only for men. The job demands strength and unwavering focus. It is not of the faint-hearted”. The Daily News of Zimbabwe adds that “the toughest part of the job is not about ropes and levers. It is about conscience”.

The last executioner at Chikurubi is said to have been a reluctant hangman, who was always extremely remorseful about his job. He quit in 2005 after hanging two notorious armed robbers who murdered prison officers while escaping from jail.

The Chikurubi executioner is not the only hangman to express remorse, even regret, for his work. The former-Virginia executioner Jerry Givens described how the job turned him into “an animal” and how the emotional trauma of each execution “locks in and stays with you”. Even the famous UK hangman Albert Pierrepoint, who administered the execution of over 450 individuals, admitted in 1974 that “[t]he fruit of my experience has this bitter aftertaste”.

Not only does the hangman’s job require nerves of steel, but it often also has considerable social stigma attached. So much so that in 2007 Missouri passed a law protecting the identities of current or former executioners fearing that they could become shunned or, worse, targets for revenge. Anonymity is also a job perk for those who administer the lethal injection in Texas.

The hooded, axe-wielding stereotype execution has long been a model for fictional villains from Dumas novels to Marvel comics. Couple this dubious reputation with years of intense emotional and psychological trauma, add bad promotional prospects and you’ve hardly got a career package that will bring hundreds of prospective candidates banging at your door.

So, what does attract a professional executioner?

It would be a mistake to suggest that the job of executioner is just for the power-seeking sadist or the reluctant state-appointee. Most are, of course, highly principled individuals who practice from conviction and gain a large degree of personal satisfaction from their work. Muhammad Saad Al-Beshi, Saudi Arabia’s leading executioner, beheads up to seven people a day and says that he is “very proud to do God’s work” administering justice.

However for the majority of death penalty supporters there is a large leap between principles and practice. It is this hypocrisy which leaves the Chikurubi position empty and more than 50 Zimbabwean prisoners facing an agonizing wait on death row, either in increasingly overcrowded cells- a 9m by 4m cell typically sleeps 25- or, worse, solitary confinement. Despite the five year hiatus in executions, death penalty sentences are being handed out as normal creating a backlog of men living under the shadow of the hangman’s noose.

Since leaving his job as executer in 2000 Jerry Givens has changed his mind about the efficacy of capital punishment and argues that “if you let the (jury) foreman be the executioner, than I think they’d give a second thought about it”. Maybe it’s time that the 70% of Britons who support the death penalty give it a second thought and question whether they’d have enough convictions to respond to Chikurubi’s job advert and don the hangman’s hood…

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