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Home > Culture and Society

On pain of death

26 March 2005

'Some people deserve to be killed.' These words were spoken earlier this week by a regular in a pub called the Starkey Arms in Heywood, Rochdale, as reported in The Independent. Paul Cooper used to drink in the Starkey Arms too. But not anymore. Not since last Friday night at around fifteen minutes to midnight, when he was set upon in his own home and beaten to death. The reason for the murder is straightforward: Cooper was a paedophile. He had it coming. But the main problem with this reasoning - not the only problem of course, but the main problem was that Cooper wasn't a paedophile at all. The mob had got it wrong.

A headline in The Manchester Evening News on the same day read 'Man was killed "by mistake"', which as well as having a slightly Brass Eye baldness to it, is also rather too open to misinterpretation. It could be taken to infer that the mob never meant to kill Cooper at all, or even that they'd broken into the wrong house. It is just a headline of course, but it's important to bear in mind that this was a deliberate killing carried out by a group of concerned citizens who were *absolutely certain* that Paul Cooper was a threat to their children. So it's not as if they got the wrong man. They knew it was Paul Cooper they wanted. And they got him. Bang to rights. Classic mob justice.

And they were wrong. Text-book.

This hysterical murder is another in a long line of utterly convincing arguments against the death penalty. Although there was no court of law, no twelve good men and true and no toff in a wig, there was a judgement arrived at by ordinary people. And that's sometimes all it takes. Paul Cooper was judged guilty by his peers. The reasons they judged him guilty will perhaps never be pinned down precisely, but then again maybe one of the murderers will be brought to trial and will explain exactly what was going on their heads. Until that moment, a surprisingly small handful of news reports suggest that it seems to come down to a combination of the following:

- the deceased had a gammy leg and walked with a stick

- he was devoted to his dog, Blue

- he was devoted to his mother, for whom he spent most mornings doing chores

- his brother had been convicted of sexual offences

So he fitted the profile. He was a weirdo. 40 and unmarried, which is dodgy enough, he didn't go boozing every night with his mates and he spent a suspicious amount of time with his mum. His brother was the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. It goes without saying that he must have been too.

At the time of writing, one of the two men apprehended by police has been released without charge and the other is still being questioned. The investigation into the innocent man's murder continues to be hampered however, because locals refuse to believe that Cooper was actually innocent. 'But he had a gammy leg,' they cry. 'Some people deserve to be killed,' they insist. It's like Salem never happened.

So what do we do now? Do we try to understand these wretched people who did this terrible thing? After all, they acted out of fear and in their hearts they believed they were doing the right thing. Or do we condemn them as the worst kind of ignorant human excrement, tie their hands and wrap a noose tight around their necks?

It is tempting. But we'd have to be sure.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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