COULD you get any more perverse? In the middle of a pandemic, the United States has started executing people again. First, it was Billy Wardlow in Texas last week. Then it was Daniel Lewis Lee in Indiana on Tuesday. The business of saving lives does not stop the business of taking them.

Coronavirus has also made the details of the executions particularly grotesque. The executioners wore masks and obeyed the rules of “social distancing” except when they needed to get close enough to inject the pentobarbital. The prison in which Mr Lee was killed was also hit by the virus and was closed to all visitors in March in an attempt to save lives, including, presumably, the life of Mr Lee (for a while at least).

To make matters worse, the virus has compromised the system that’s supposed to represent the people facing execution. Mr Lee, who was sentenced to death for his involvement in the murder of a couple and their eight-year-old daughter, had not been able to see his lawyer Ruth Friedman for months. “I can’t do my job right,” she said a few weeks ago. “Nobody can.”

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None of this should be surprising – Donald Trump said he would resume federal executions (on hold since 2003) and that’s what he’s done. He’s also made the decision in the knowledge most Americans will support him and may not care about the details. Daniel Lewis Lee was an angry and dangerous man, but he was also abused and neglected as a kid. Billy Wardlow was sentenced to death for murder, but when he committed the crime, he was 18 years old.

Sadly, this is often how the story of executions goes, including executions in Scotland. The last man to be hanged here was Henry John Burnett, who murdered his girlfriend's husband. As a child, Burnett spent time in borstals and later tried to kill himself; the case also happened before legal aid, so he was defended by somebody with virtually no experience of criminal defence. He was executed in Aberdeen in 1963, aged 21.

If any good did come out of the case, it was that it probably expedited the abolition of the death penalty in Britain – it happened two years later. But what’s striking is that, despite the abolition, public support for capital punishment was strong in this country and remains relatively high. The most recent Scottish Attitudes Survey shows about half the population supports the death penalty for some crimes.

It’s interesting that opinion is divided in this way at a time when it feels like almost every subject, including independence, is split into a binary yes or no, but the breakdown is different. We know there’s a strong socially conservative streak in Scotland but it cuts across all the parties. In the case of Labour, part of its traditional working class support is hard on criminal justice, and in the SNP, the less progressive wing of the movement partly explains the creation of new pro-independence parties led by voices who’ve been sceptical on issues such as trans rights.

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What all this means is we should remember we’re not really as progressive as we think we are and that, while support for the death penalty has dropped from about two-thirds in the 1980s, it is still extraordinary that half the Scottish population thinks it’s a good idea for the state to kill people. They may even have a preferred method: injection, electrocution, who knows.

We should also note that, although there’s no realistic prospect of the death penalty returning in Britain – or in an independent Scotland for that matter – it has become a little bit easier in the last few months. As a member of the EU, the UK was banned from reintroducing the death penalty but now that we’re out of the EU no such ban applies anymore. So, in theory, it could happen if a future government wanted it.

The hope must be, surely, that Scotland’s changing attitudes on capital punishment and other liberal issues such as sexuality would prevent any return to the death sentence. But it’s worth remembering that governments do not always follow public opinion. The death penalty was abolished in the 1960s even though the vast majority of people supported it, so presumably the reverse could happen and a future government could ignore public opinion and reintroduce it.

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It’s also worth remembering that, although support for the death penalty has dropped since the 1960s, it has dropped at a very slow rate. Yes, it’s 50/50 now, but think about this: there’s a good chance that every second person in Scotland will look at the executions of Billy Wardlow and Daniel Lewis Lee during a global effort to save lives and think: good, justice has been served, job done.

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