THE BLOG

The Cruel and Unusual Punishment of Life Imprisonment

03/03/2014 16:55 GMT | Updated 03/05/2014 10:59 BST

Some people who oppose the death penalty argue that life in prison without the possibility of parole is quantitatively more civilised. I sometimes wonder whether they are correct.

To be sure, there seems to be no kind, gentle way for the State to kill people. Lethal injection was meant to be the panacea, but it is riddled with catastrophe. To begin with, it may take decades for the courts to validate a death sentence: Florida executed Thomas Knight on January 6, 2014. He had been on death row since 1974, under the damoclean sword of death.

Meanwhile, doctors cannot take part in an execution, given their Hippocratic Oath to do no harm. It may take a questionably qualified technician 45 minutes to find a vein in the arm of a long-term drug abuser. And pharmaceutical companies make medicine to cure people, so they object to their drugs being used to kill. Therefore corrections officers, who are focused on meeting an execution date, end up testing drugs that have been 'compounded' from uncertain ingredients. The result: when Ohio's lethal cocktail began to flow on January 15, it took Dennis McGuire 25 minutes to suffocate as the human experiment went wrong.

To be sure, then, all executions have an ugly face. However, compare this to the case of Kris Maharaj; a British citizen, he is going to die at the hands of the state, just like Knight and McGuire. He too spent 15 years in the shadow of Florida's execution chamber before his resentencing trial, where a jury recommended a couple of life sentences, with various other years stacked on top for those who believe in reincarnation. Today, 4 March 2014, is the 10,000th day that he has spent in prison for a crime that he patently did not commit.

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So far, Kris has been in prison for 27 years. Setting his innocence aside for a moment, he is no better off now than when he joined Thomas Knight on Florida's death row. He was 75 years old in January. Recently, the Florida Parole Commission sent him a letter scheduling his "initial parole interview": it will be held, they say, in April 2042. By then, Kris will be 103 years old. Perhaps more accurately, he will be dead.

Because of the terrible medical treatment (or absence of care) that he received, he will have died prematurely - but agonisingly - at the hands of the State of Florida. Just as Knight obtained several stays of execution, so Kris has frequently come within a whisker of dying. Once he developed gangrene when he broke an arm after a fall. Only the intervention of a horrified doctor from outside the prison saved him then.

Two years ago, he was ordered to use an unsanitary prison bed. He became the third consecutive prisoner to contract necrotising fasciitis after just one night on the mattress. The deadly flesh-eating bacteria began rapidly to devour his leg. For ten weeks he was held incommunicado in a prison hospital, his long-suffering wife Marita not knowing whether he was dead or alive.

Originally Kris was condemned to the Electric Chair; after his latest medical ordeal, he is condemned to a wheel chair. He is meant to survive on inedible meals that cost 56 cents each. "If I fed this food to my old dog," Kris told me recently, "he would bite me." There is nothing productive that his active mind can turn to in prison, so he finds himself gradually stultifying. He lives only for the five minutes each day he can spend on the phone to his wife. The other 23 hours 55 minutes are simple misery.

Kris is facing death at the hands of the state, to be sure, but it is a drawn out execution that rivals in barbarism anything that the Middle Ages had to offer. Meanwhile, the Florida commission tells Kris that if he wants to have any chance of being paroled in 2042, he must stay "discipline free" for at least 90 days before his initial parole hearing. Since "the grave's a fine and quiet place" it seems likely that he will comply.

However, unless Justice - that apparently mythological Unicorn of the law - somehow rears up, the only way he will leave prison is in a wooden box, just as he would had he been claimed by Old Sparky all those years ago. It is not clear to me that Florida has done him any favours by prolonging this sadistic suffering.

Clive Stafford Smith has represented Kris Maharaj pro bono for the last 20 years; he may be contacted at clive@reprieve.org.uk