Our cover breaks new ground in two ways. It’s the first time we have had two people on it, and the first time we have featured a lawyer. Lawyers have something in common with journalists: outsiders, when they think of them, tend to picture the bad ones—the vultures preying on the vulnerable, the sophists twisting the truth. But you will find public-spirited people lurking in both camps. Our cover stars, Parvais Jabbar and Saul Lehrfreund, grew up in Britain, which had closed the gallows before they were born. They could easily have avoided ever having to step onto the minefield—moral, legal, emotional, bureaucratic—that is Death Row. Instead they have devoted their careers to it, and not just to working on it, but dismantling it.
They run the Death Penalty Project, which is changing the world by chipping away at it. We heard about it when our literary editor, Maggie Fergusson, was talking to Lucy Hughes-Hallett, who spent much of last year collecting prizes for “The Pike”, a biography of the artist and fascist Gabriele d’Annunzio. Hughes-Hallett was itching to see the Death Penalty Project in action, so we sent her to Belize, where it has had striking success, with Jabbar.
“Distrust all those”, Goethe advised, “in whom the urge to punish is strong.” His view has mostly prevailed, but agonisingly slowly. No sane person believes in punishing thieves by robbing them, but some atavistic urge still tempts us to think that one killing should be punished with another. It’s illogical, unChristian, and ineffective: in America, where two states retain the electric chair for every one that has abolished it, deathpenaltyinfo.org shows that the murder rate actually goes up when the state puts people to death.
Hughes-Hallett weaves a fascinating story out of her dark materials, and there are two especially telling moments. The first is when she likens Jabbar and Lehrfreund to Portia in “The Merchant of Venice”, for reasons you will discover; the second when she asks the two QCs the project relies on why they work for it pro bono. One is driven by righteous indignation; the other just finds the process very interesting.