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Hanging in the Balance

Over 44 years later, The Executioner’s Song still raises questions about the morality of capital punishment

By Maheen Irfan |
PUBLISHED June 20, 2021

In 1976, Gary Mark Gilmore robbed and killed two men in cold blood. At the time, no one had been executed in America for ten years. So when he was sentenced to death row, it was still expected that his sentence would be changed to life imprisonment. However, the difference was that Gilmore wanted die. Gilmore advocated for his death and referred to the execution as ‘death with dignity.’ He preferred it to a life in prison, which he thought comprised unbearable misery (he also made two attempts to end his life while in jail). Utah’s law allowed prisoners to choose their method of execution and between hanging and the firing squad, Gilmore chose the latter.

About four years prior to Gilmore’s crimes, the United States Supreme Court had ruled the death penalty a ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ as states used it in ‘arbitrary and capricious ways.’ However, in 1976, after 66 per cent of Americans supported the death penalty, the court lifted the ban on capital punishment. A year later, Gilmore was to be the first to be executed since the ban was lifted. He would be the first man in America to be executed after 10 years. Since his death by a volunteer firing squad on January 17, 1977, 1,400 executions have been carried out in the US.

The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer was published soon after in 1979. As author Dave Eggers described in 2012: “His execution reignited our national taste for vengeance. Since his execution, over 1,000 others have been killed by the government of the United States.” While anti-death penalty lawyers fought to stay Gilmore’s execution, he wanted to die. Gilmore, who at the time of crimes resided in the small Mormon town of Provo, Utah, had already spent a better part of his life in jail. The night of his killing spree, he robbed a gas station and a motel – in both cases, Gilmore could have walked away with the money and didn’t actually need to commit the murders. But he did so nonetheless. When he was put on death row, Gilmore insisted that his sentence be carried out. His lawyers scrambled to try and see if he could be declared legally insane but that wasn’t the case and Gilmore was an uncooperative client because he didn’t want to win the case.

After the execution, Lawrence Schiller, a young photographer and producer, reached out to Gilmore’s family, friends and former lovers, and began the process of interviewing them and collecting data. Once he’d collected the data, he reached out to Norman Mailer, who at the time was a well-known author and asked him to convert the information into a novel. From that mountain of information and correspondence, Mailer was able to create a meticulously detailed account of Gilmore’s life. In fact, Mailer once remarked about the novel that he was given the book whole and complete from God. But what did the novel achieve by chronicling Gilmore’s life this way? For many, it humanised a cold-blooded killer and shed insight into the life of a man who was chalked up by an entire nation as nothing more than a dangerous and unpredictable killer. However, if it were to be looked at as a whole, the story begs the question: Over four decades after Gilmore was shot to death by a firing squad, where do we as a society stand on capital punishment?

In Pakistan, the moratorium on capital punishment was lifted in 2014, after a gruesome attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School on December 16, 2014 left more than 150 people dead. Soon after, a National Action Plan was laid out to curb militancy in the country. The plan included lifting the six-year ban on death penalty. Initially, executions were only reinstated for those convicted of terrorism but by March 2015, the punishment was extended to all capital offences. At the time when the ban was lifted in 2014, Pakistan had the world’s largest number of death row prisoners: Nearly 8,000 inmates were toiling in prisons across the country. UN human rights spokesperson Rupert Colville urged Pakistan not to carry out the executions and human rights activists appealed to the government to reconsider their decision as many innocent people also stood to lose their lives from the decision. However, the government, in a decision fueled by the outrage over the Peshawar attack, chose to forge ahead with their chosen course of action. Two executions were carried out in a matter of days after the attack on the army school.


Pakistan, currently, is one of 56 countries in the world that still practices death penalty. In 2019, according to Amnesty International, it continued to hold the world’s largest death row population with 4, 225 people still awaiting their execution. The human rights organisation also reports that in 2019, 632 death sentences were given by Pakistani courts. Moreover, Pakistan’s penal code encompasses the death penalty for 33 crimes, which include, murder, kidnapping, adultery, gang rape and blasphemy.


For decades, the Pakistani police force has been notorious for extracting coerced confession through excessive use of violence. In many cases, suspects have been known to admit to the crime just from their sheer desperation for the torture inflicted by law enforcement officers to be over. The officers for their part can consider the matter closed so long as they’ve found someone to pin the crime on. Add to that, limitations in collection of forensic evidence and corruption in the form of overlooking the role of connected and influential guilty parties, have all contributed to the disparity and dilution of the rule of law within the justice system. And within that landscape, what now remains to be question is whether as a society to we want to responsible for punishing someone we can’t without a shadow of a doubt say is hundred per cent guilty of the crime. Or for that matter, can we ask ourselves if we want to be responsible for punishing someone and taking their lives even if they are guilty?