Criminals in 19th century Edinburgh could expect rough justice for their sins. Cloth merchants or tailors who sold short measure to upstanding city housewives were regularly taken to the Tolbooth for trial.
If found guilty, they were nailed to the door by their ears and left overnight to ponder their crimes. In the morning, they were literally ripped from the door and sent on their way. Their tattered ears proclaimed their guilt and in most instances they never worked again.
William Burke, the Edinburgh serial killer and graverobber, was hanged, dissected and his skin cured and made into souvenirs like the cigarette case which used to give tourists gruesome goosebumps in the old Police Museum off the Royal Mile.
A cigarette case made from a hanged man’s ears. Hungry children hung in the Grassmarket in front of intoxicated crowds of onlookers for stealing bread. That’s the kind of stuff we did to our fellow human beings hundreds of years ago. We’ve moved on. The death penalty no longer applies in Scotland.
It’s a different story in America. In the land of Apple computers and space missions to Mars, they still think it’s OK to put another human being to death. Barack Obama is halfway through his second term. Clearly a sensitive, compassionate, likeable president, he still allows largely poor, illiterate, black and sometimes mentally-ill Americans to be executed on his watch.
This, despite the fact that due to a shortage of the lethal poisons needed to carry out executions (withheld from them by governments who oppose the death penalty), a Death Row criminal was executed last year using inferior chemicals and endured more than 20 minutes of agony before he finally expired.
Every few years in the States, at least one innocent person is mistakenly executed and hundreds more wrongly-convicted men and women can spend years on Death Row, fighting for their lives, often in solitary confinement, before their miscarriage of justice is finally overturned.
Edinburgh-born Kenny Richey spent 21 years under sentence of death for a crime he was finally proved not to have committed. Until the week of his release he protested his innocence and refused numerous attempts to persuade him to take a plea-bargain.
The state of Alabama is particularly fond of killing its own people. It has the highest per capita death penalty rate in America. In some years, it imposes more death sentences than Texas, a state with a population five times as large.
For 30 years, Alabama prosecutors tried every day to kill Anthony Ray Hinton, an innocent man wrongly accused of a double murder. The fact that he was poor and black meant he was 50 per cent more likely to be convicted at trial and the Alabama state prosecutor duly obliged. Hinton was held alone in Death Row, in a cell measuring five feet by eight feet.
The man who rescued him was Bryan Stevenson, a director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson said a defence analysis during appeal showed that the bullets taken from the bodies did not match the gun. He tried for years to persuade the state of Alabama to re-examine the evidence. Time and again they refused. State prosecutors don’t like to lose face and in some cases would prefer to let an innocent man die than risk being criticised for a gross miscarriage of justice.
Fifty years have passed since the last two hangings in Britain. We can be proud of the stand we took back then to abandon capital punishment. Studies have proved it never had any deterrent effect and claimed the lives of many innocent men and women.
Meanwhile, the state of Idaho has just reintroduced capital punishment by firing squad because so many countries refuse to sell the chemicals it needs to carry out lethal injections.
For a modern country, America has a long way to go before it can be called civilised.
Sturgeon can deal with all the carping from old boys in suits
The rich men who run our country are out of touch with the people who live and work in it. So it is ironic that the woman putting them all off their caviar is called Sturgeon.
The main lesson we learned from last Wednesday’s ITV Leaders’ Debate is that we need more women in politics.
Every time Natalie Bennett, Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon spoke, you could feel the ground shifting under the men’s feet. Three smart, principled women made four posh blokes in suits look and sound like second-hand car salesmen.
While the men stood goggle-eyed as Nigel Farage abused people with HIV, too scared of losing votes to intervene, Leanne Wood told him he should be ashamed of himself.
Natalie Bennett of the Greens spoke with genuine passion and conviction. But it was Nicola Sturgeon who stole the show and boy, is she paying for daring to offer a credible challenge to the status quo.
First, the men at the Daily Telegraph tried to smear her with a leaked memo. The next day they agreed she was clear, confident and combative but… “one could add a fourth c-word: cold… less a question of a splinter of ice in her heart than a few scraps of heart tissue clinging to an icicle.”
Predictably, the Daily Mail got in on the act too: “Little Miss McHypocrite set to lord it over England: Full story of the cynicism and double standards of SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon who could soon run England with Red Ed.”
Her crime? As a teenager, she lived in a house her parents bought under Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme. Not that Sturgeon will let these jibes knock her off her stride. She is determined to bring positive change to the UK by upsetting the cosy old boys’ club that is Westminster. Friends of mine say: “Sturgeon’s gender has nothing to do with her success, Thatcher was a woman and look how divisive she was.”
It’s true, some women who are hard to like occasionally make it to the top. But I think there’s more than a little truth to the notion that most women are more collaborative, more caring and less likely to be led by their egos than most men. They have the courage of their convictions too – not surprising considering how hard they had to fight to win the right to vote.
The Suffragettes weren’t always peaceful protestors. They firebombed politicians’ homes, vandalised golf courses and broke shop windows. Edinburgh’s Fettes College was firebombed too. But in 1912, a handful of Suffragettes walked 400 miles from Edinburgh to London to present their Votes For Women petition to No 10.
Later, the woman who led the march, artist Ethel Moorhead was imprisoned and force-fed. It took 16 more years before women finally got the vote on the same terms as men.
Now it’s time for the men to step back, just as Alex Salmond did, and let our most able female politicians have a go at cleaning up the mess we’ve made of the world.