Standin’ on the gallows,(Stagolee, Mississippi John Hurt version).
Stagolee did cuss.
The judge said, “Let’s kill him,
before he kills some of us.”
That bad man, that cruel Stagolee
I confess I didn’t follow the case of Lucy Letby, recently convicted of murdering multiple pre-term babies as a nurse, at all closely. My only specific reaction before the verdict was, overhearing on Mrs G’s radio the news that Lucy had refused to attend court for it, that criminals ought to be forced to attend.
Only afterwards was I surprised to find that there is considerable doubt, amongst soberly-minded and competent people, not only about her guilt, but about whether any crime was ever committed, other than those of managerial incompetence and cover-up in the setting up and running of the neonatal unit. The interview below gives a good overview of the problems, including the rather dark truth that any appeal against conviction would certainly require large sums of money not available to the accused, and certainly not to be obtained from the State or from a hostile public.
In the light of the questions of administrative failures, and particularly the alleged “coming up to retirement” lack of support from the Paediatric Consultant involved, the “How I came to suspect Letby” article from that same retired consultant a day or two after her conviction takes on a somewhat different significance, suggesting rather more self-justification than was immediately apparent.
However, what has certainly struck me – and I think would have done even had I not become aware of the possibility of a gross miscarriage of justice – is the way that the public discourse since conviction has followed the classic pattern of Rene Girard’s “individual scapegoating” phenomenon, as first pointed out to me here by commenter Levi. To remind you, Girard suggested that societies under stress, by venting their pent-up anger on an innocent victim in a lynching, temporarily relieve their dysfunction and maintain social order. And so the press was not content to report the guilty verdict and allow the perpetrator to be quietly banged up for life, but the media was, and still is, full of articles of wonderment and recrimination at how such an evil individual can be so utterly evil and yet appear so innocent.
Like Stagolee, the crimes are so horrendous that All Decent People want to go on and on pronouncing guilt, in case (like Stagolee) she should escape and start killing all over again. In fact, the whole world seems to be saying that she deserves the gallows, like cruel Stagolee, including even usually sensible Peter Hitchens, who has used the case to argue for the return of capital punishment.
And that’s all well and good if the conviction were utterly secure. But as I have said, there are severe doubts about that. Just imagine, though, if you were Lucy Letby, and had indeed been the victim of false accusation, what the psychological effect on you would be to know that the whole world considers you worthy of death and eternal damnation, though you murdered nobody. Imagine this train of thought in your cell: “I know I didn’t murder those babies, but God must be punishing me because I should have done more to save them, so there’s no hope for me here or in eternity.” Prison is a severe sentence – but the impression of rejection by the whole human race, and God, must be unbearable even for the innocent. If that innocence were the case, the extra severity from the judge for “lack of remorse” is particularly cruel.
We already know Lucy’s sensitive nature from her reflective diary, when it is not torn out of context. When babies under her care died, the court was told how she wrote, “I must be evil…” but were not informed that on the same page she had wondered what more she could have done to save them. I have worked on SCBU, and know the feelings of self-blame on losing one of these especially precious and vulnerable patients, even as a relatively detached doctor. Indeed, I still get those false guilt feelings in occasional dreams 35 years later.
Nurses by contrast are younger, usually less worldly-wise, in this case unmarried, and crucially, are charged with caring for lives, rather than merely administering treatment. Whether it is healthy to be asked to bear one’s soul in a journal contributing to professional assessment I’m not sure, but that is what the profession now demands. It is certainly illegitimate for the authorities to use such a compulsory journal – and even the keeping of it – as evidence of homicidal culpability.
What prompted me to write on this was a conversation with my daughter this weekend. She was wondering how she could explain such evil crimes to her daughters, aged eight and six, since they would undoubtedly pick up the news and the universal hatred from the media. Needless to say, the news media being what it is, my daughter had absolutely no idea that there was any question of Lucy Letby’s guilt, and the possibility shocked her.
In fact she had introduced the matter with an aspect I hadn’t been aware of, citing a Times article on the inexplicable nature of Letby’s crimes given her happy childhood, caring disposition and universal popularity – quite unlike the usual psychopathic traits. In fact I had already seen that many of her colleagues are still standing by her, convinced of her innocence, but my daughter’s Times article helps explain why. The fact is that all the evidence against her was circumstantial, or even gathered by invalid statistical analysis. Nobody saw her do anything untoward. I’m not sure it’s any easier for my daughter to explain “gross miscarriage of justice” to my granddaughters that it is “psychopathic murder” – is it worse to doubt human nature or the institutions you’re growing up in?
The main point, though, is that my daughter hadn’t heard about the doubts, because the media isn’t reporting the doubts, because a society currently under severe stress doesn’t want doubts, but a good scapegoat (though the press also profit financially from a cartoon villain). The people are beginning to see through the idea that Putin is to blame for everything that’s so evidently wrong around us. But the real villains are either hidden from them through propaganda, or are given “protected status” that makes it criminal to express anger towards them. The risk is of oneself becoming a scapegoat, which COVID proved to be a very potent pressure towards conformity within a dysfunctional system.
It is, historically, even more of a risk to side with an official scapegoat. The judicious individual who tries to speak up for the accused witch or the innocent Jewish shopkeeper will likely find himself swinging on the same scaffold, or sharing a bunk in the death camp. And so there is a sense in which the question of Lucy Letby’s guilt or innocence does not matter, because the needs of mass-psychology take priority, even if the judicial system could afford to be, once again, proven to have fallen below its much-vaunted standards. So one must, sadly, be pessimistic about justice being done, whatever exculpatory evidence may be available in this case.
For these reasons I find myself coming out against the return of the death penalty. The inevitable fallibility of human courts is one thing – but add to that the evident need of society for victims to scapegoat, and the apparent propensity of our own institutions now to prioritise the shaky stability of society over individual justice, and capital punishment is a tool to keep out of our hands at nearly all costs. “It is expedient that one man should die for the people,” said Caiaphas of Jesus, and though he inadvertently spoke prophetically, his intended meaning was pure evil.
Oddly enough, the original “cruel Stagolee,” Stack Lee Shelton, was not only undoubtedly guilty, but didn’t, in real life, serve as a scapegoat. He never “stood on the gallows” at all, but was committed to prison and paroled in 1909, 14 years after the murder. In 1911 he was convicted again of robbery and assault, dying in prison a year later. 1911 was also the year the song was first properly published, so maybe in that sense, in a small way, society got its victim, after all.