The job of killing people

2008-06-03 00:00

THE overwhelming majority of South Africans would like to see the death penalty brought back — repeated surveys have come up with the same result. But they might think again if they read a new novel by Durban advocate Chris Marnewick, 'Shepherds & Butchers'.

Marnewick has written a powerful indictment of the effects of the death penalty on those involved in its administration, particularly the warders who guard the Death Row prisoners, take a gruesome part in the hangings and then have to bury the bodies. But the novel makes clear that lawyers, judges, assessors and witnesses are also traumatised.

'Shepherds & Butchers' is set in 1988, in the aftermath of an actual orgy of executions that at one stage saw 21 people hanged in three days.

“I’ve had an interest in the topic for a long time,” says Marnewick. “And I remember thinking then that the scale of the killing was unbelievable — barbaric.”

In 1999 Marnewick went to New Zealand to teach lawyers preparing for their bar exams and to write a legal training text book. While there, he began to plan his death penalty novel. He asked his wife’s nephew, a law student in Pretoria, to draw the cases and court registers between November 26 and December 10, 1987, from the archives. He found records of 31 executions and later, during the four years of research that went into 'Shepherds & Butchers', Marnewick would find one more. In all, in that two-week period, 32 people were hanged. The records and the pages from the register are reproduced in 'Shepherds & Butchers', a sobering factual backdrop to the fictional story.

Marnewick’s novel centres on the effect of these hangings on one 20-year-old prison warder — Leon Labuschagne. At the end of the two weeks of state-legitimised killing, he pulls out a gun and shoots seven members of a township karate team dead following a road rage incident. A Durban Senior Counsel, Johann Weber, takes on his defence at the request of Lawyers for Human Rights. Weber is the novel’s narrator.

But why write this now? After all, South Africa abolished the death penalty in 1994. “History needs to be recorded, for better or worse,” says Marnewick. “I felt a novel would be a good vehicle to carry the historical facts.”

Weber defends Labuschagne on the basis that the trauma of his job was such that he was not responsible for his actions — and I am not going to give away the end of the book by saying if he succeeds. “It’s a well-known defence — although not an easy one to argue,” says Marnewick.

To turn his abhorrence of capital punishment into fiction, Marnewick had to give the book a structure, and add the twists and turns a novel needs. “I took an advocate, like me, who has a commercial practice, removed him from his comfort zone and put him into a criminal case. And I took the main character out of his working life of legitimate, structured killing on behalf of the state and put him in a situation of unlawful killing. Then I made them deal with it.”

It is not a comfortable book to read, although the reader gets caught up in the drama of the court case. There are graphic details of the 32 murders that led to the spate of executions, and of the horrible process of hanging. “Those 32 cases are real — and I don’t feel sorry for the killers. They killed when it was not necessary, for no good reason. But if they were alive, I would fight for them not to be hanged,” says Marnewick.

He understands people’s emotional reactions. “When I heard of the rape of Schalk Burger’s sister, René, my first thought was: ‘I want those people dead’. But that’s the reaction of the lynch mob. We are made up of two parts, the instinctive and the intellectual. The instinctive part is where the emotional mind resides, leading to ephemeral, immediate reactions. But then the rational mind overcomes the emotional response. When the rational mind is in control, you won’t make the mistakes the emotional mind makes. It’s one of the ideas in the book.”

His anti-death penalty stance comes from his conviction that, as far as we can know, human beings are unique in the universe in that they have a rational mind — and that is something that should not be taken away. “I have grave doubts about euthanasia and abortion for the same reason,” he says. “I’m not a religious person, but my guiding principle is that lives are sacred.”

As we talk, I ask about the other compelling reason for not having a death penalty — the possibility of an innocent person being executed. While Marnewick says he is sure the accused were guilty in the actual cases the book deals with, he still found errors in the way the cases were handled — witnesses obviously lying, flawed police work and the quality of the defence.

“Junior people were used as defence lawyers in South Africa. If the accused could not afford lawyers, there were given Pro Deo counsel [counsel paid for by the state].” The lawyers were often incompetent and Marnewick admits that when he handled Pro Deo cases at the start of his career he was “a poor excuse for a defence lawyer”.

“In one case I had, I was going to put the accused on the stand. The judge asked me if I was sure I wanted to do that — he said, ‘Sleep on it’. I didn’t have the insight to know the witnesses had been useless. But I got the message; I didn’t call him and in the morning, he was acquitted.”

Things that could lead to a miscarriage of justice include the fallibility of witnesses, poor police investigation, mistakes by lawyers on both sides and by judges. There could also be flaws in the advisory process if clemency was asked for. “There have been some strange cases in the executive exercise of the prerogative of mercy,” says Marnewick. “P. W. Botha reprieved the Sharpeville Six [the six men who were convicted and sentenced to death for being part of a mob that killed the deputy Mayor of Sharpeville in 1984] under heavy political pressure. Then he reprieved two white policemen who had killed a drug dealer, and two soldiers. It was like a tit-for-tat reprieve — ‘I’ll reprieve your six, but then do these ones as well’.” It begins to sound as if being sentenced to death or not was something of a lottery.

At the beginning of Marnewick’s novel, there is an epigraph from Voltaire: “A government must have shepherds and butchers”. But once you have read the book, and thought about the effect on the butchers — those who the state pays to do its dirty work — you begin to realise that some jobs are just too dirty to be done.

• 'Shepherds & Butchers' by Chris Marnewick is published by Umuzi.

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