I’m against the death penalty, but Lucy Letby has shaken my stance08/26/2023
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For most of my life I’ve dismissed those talkback callers and letter writers who suggest, in response to a horrific crime, that governments should bring back the death penalty.
A court artist’s drawing of nurse Lucy Letby at Manchester Crown Court on August 11.Credit: Elizabeth Cook
The arguments against are many, familiar and valid: no judicial system is free from error; there is always a risk that an innocent person will be executed; it does not deter crime; it is objectively cruel and inhumane; and it denies an offender the possibility of rehabilitation. I could go on.
But this week, for the first time in a long time, I paused to think as newspaper columnists and callers to radio programs kicked off an inevitable call to bring it back. The furore follows what are perhaps the most heinous crimes I’ve ever had to follow closely.
Lucy Letby, a neonatal nurse, was last Friday convicted of murdering seven babies and attempting to kill another six. Now just 33 years old, she worked at the Countess of Chester Hospital in England’s Midlands, murdering her tiny victims between June 2015 and June 2016.
Lucy Letby was questioned by police during an interview after her arrest.Credit: Reuters
Letby’s crimes were uncovered when doctors reviewed the suspicious deaths at the hospital and found that she was on shift for each incident − but it would take years before she would be brought to justice.
Letby, as Justice James Goss told Manchester crown court, coldly denied any responsibility for wrongdoing. Part of the pain and suffering of the families whose babies have been murdered is that they may never know why Letby did it.
“You acted in a way that was completely contrary to the normal human instincts of nurturing and caring for babies and in gross breach of the trust that all citizens place in those who work in the medical and caring professions,” Goss said. “There was a malevolence bordering on sadism in your actions. You have no remorse. There are no mitigating factors.”
Before Goss handed down whole-of-life sentences for each of Letby’s crimes − meaning she will never be released − victim impact statements from the parents who suffered heartbreaking loss were read to the court. Even after reading them all I still cannot fully grasp what they must be going through.
A court artist’s drawing of the parent of one of Lucy Letby’s victims reading a victim impact statement at Manchester crown court.Credit: Elizabeth Cook
If you cannot trust a nurse on a maternity ward to care for a newborn who can you ever trust again?
During my 20-odd years in journalism I’ve met many people who have fought long and hard for the abolition of the death penalty. The hanging of Australian heroin trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van in 2005 remains clear in my memory. So, too, the 2015 execution by firing squad of eight people convicted of drug offences in Indonesia, among them Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.
But you could not hold it against any of the parents who told you they thought Letby deserved to be killed for her crimes. To be honest, I couldn’t have told them they were wrong to think so.
Police are now reviewing the care of 4000 babies Letby may have come into contact with and suspect she could be linked to the death of at least 30 more children.
No confession, no remorse. Letby did not even front the courtroom for her sentencing. The judge made an order for the victim impact statements to be delivered to her cell, but there is no guarantee she will ever read them.
So, remind me again, why should such an evil monster be allowed to live out the rest of her life, even in prison?
Capital punishment is often justified with the argument that by executing convicted murderers we will deter would-be murderers. It is painfully clear, however, that nothing would have stopped Letby.
Our medical and other institutions, even at their best, are not perfect. We need to keep constant watch.
If newspaper and TV straw polls are to be believed here in the UK this week, a referendum on the death penalty would be a close run thing. But we should remember it is too often a tool of politics. The death penalty remains a popular way for leaders to show their citizenry that they are strong on law and order.
Perhaps we can be thankful Letby has to live with her crimes for decades to come and doesn’t get an easy way out.
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