Some crimes are so abhorrent that we can imagine no punishment more befitting their perpetrator than death. Some criminals demonstrate such disconnection from society and its expected values that rehabilitation is a hopeless cause. It has been argued that the death penalty can serve as an effective means of deterrent for the worst crimes imaginable.
The last execution by hanging in the UK was in 1964 and the penalty was totally abolished in 1998. But many other countries around the world, including the United States, have continued to hand out death sentences for an array of crimes. Let’s have a look at the arguments that have been made in favour and against returning the death penalty in the UK and compare its historic use in Britain, with its current use in places like the US to consider what the real implications of this action would be.
The history of capital punishment in the UK
Capital punishment has been utilised by more or less every society in the world since time immemorial. Incarceration requires a significant amount of resources, in the feeding and guarding of prisoners, and in the pre-modern era many prisoners, especially if they were of the lower classes, were not considered worth their upkeep. Execution was therefore simply a more convenient punishment to deal out. Given the condition of gaols and prisons before their reformation in the Victorian era, incarceration may well have been a death sentence anyway. By the 18th century, more than 200 crimes were punishable by death and between 1735 and 1964 almost 11,000 civilians were executed (10,500 men).
By the late 19th century executions were no longer public and appeals granting reprieve had become commonplace, with many execution sentences reduced to transportation or life imprisonment. This was often the case because the crime being committed demanded capital punishment, and judges would have to give that sentence even if they then recommended clemency or expected reprieve from an appeal to the King or Queen.
The last execution in the UK was on the 13th August 1964, when Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans were hanged for the murder of John West.
Capital punishment was suspended in 1965 and then abolished for the crime of murder in 1969 (1973 for Northern Ireland) and only retained for certain crimes, mostly related to treason or other acts against the state until final abolition in 1998.
Around the world
In 2018 over half of sovereign states have abolished the death penalty largely due to a change in focus of justice systems away from punishment and towards reform. Some notable cases of countries which have retained the punishment include Saudi Arabia, whose executions are regularly commented on, China, and of course the United States. In contrast with the UK, the US has typically utilised varying methods of execution including hanging, electrocution, firing squad and lethal injection.
In the US, criminals who are sentenced to death are put on death row, part of a lengthy process which sees prisoners waiting an average of 15 years for their execution while time is given for absolute certainty of conviction and chance of appeal.
When capital punishment goes wrong
Execution is a one-way street. Once it is done it cannot be undone. With every criminal conviction there is a chance of injustice due to mistakes or flaws in procedure, or even due to malicious intent (framing).
In an article in the Guardian in 2002, it was reported that during the decade from 1989-1999, 8,470 convictions were abated on appeal in the UK, so there is certainly no case to be made for an argument that says justice is flawless.
There have been some notable examples of wrongful execution prior to the abolition of the death penalty. In 1953, teenager Derek Bentley was hanged for the crime of party to murder of a policeman. The other party who had committed the murder was not executed due to his status as a minor. Derek had experienced learning difficulties and was regarded as having been taken advantage of by the perpetrator of the murder. In the incident, the two had been burglarising a warehouse and had been caught in the act. The other party, Christopher Craig drew a firearm on the attending officer which he then discharged.
During the trial, one point which has since been heavily discussed was the phrase allegedly uttered by Bentley on the scene: “Let him have it Chris”, since it is debated whether Bentley might have meant ‘shoot him’, or ‘give him the gun’, if he did say it at all.
In the course of the execution, it had been expected that reprieve would be granted. The jury’s recommendation of mercy had been passed on via the home secretary, but no appeal was granted, and Bentley was executed.
In 1993, Bentley was given a royal pardon, and in 1998 the conviction of murder was quashed, finally and firmly establishing the execution as a miscarriage of justice. Since the execution it has been suggested that the execution and lack of clemency might have been due to the fact that a policeman had been killed and the actual murderer was not eligible for the death penalty.
To punish, or to prevent?
Arguments in favour of capital punishment tend to sit firmly within the justice as punishment, as opposed to the justice as reform camp. Typically, the most serious crimes tend to be highlighted – rape, mass murder, terrorism, etc. and there has been fairly widespread public support in favour of returning the death penalty for these most serious of crimes. Very recently, the government decided to not object to the execution of two British citizens in the USA over terrorism offences, a decision which some have argued makes for a de facto support of capital punishment in principle.
But capital punishment has also been argued from a crime prevention position as it has long been held as a form of deterrent. Indeed, this was the purpose of displaying executions publicly in the past, the idea being that people would see what comes of committing crimes and would be intimidated into avoiding criminal activities. However, public executions commonly became venues of spectacle and entertainment, with cheering crowds, souvenirs and food vendors. During the 17th century, some criminals like highwaymen were often glorified as antiheroes like Dick Turpin, some of whom made rousing speeches to keep the crowd entertained.
Today the question of the efficacy of capital punishment as a deterrent has been subjected to research, and by most reports is ineffective. It has been argued that the idea that the consequences of an action would lead eventually to death probably factors little in a criminal’s mind, particularly in the heat of the moment when a crime for which capital punishment is not attached, like robbery, escalates to murder or manslaughter.
Should we bring back the noose?
There certainly is an argument to be made for the return of capital punishment, but it seems to mostly be an emotional response to the horrific nature of some of the most extreme crimes. If we were to bring back capital punishment, we would have to accept that times have changed since the 1960s and our form of execution would likely resemble that of the US – decade-long death row periods – an expensive process, the uncertainty of which may negatively affect the mental state of the convicted and the result of which producing no real effect other than perhaps the satisfaction of the victims, if even that.
It is argued that all people have an inalienable right to life which cannot justifiably be taken, whether by a private citizen (murder) or by the state (judicial execution). But equally we also hold that a person may have a right to defend themselves and therefore kill a person in self-defence – which rather contradicts this idea. So then if a person can be, to some extent, excused from the act of killing if it prevents their own death, then that right to life is not considered inalienable.
Ultimately whether or not the punishment should be returned depends on how we as a society judge that right to life, and whether one person’s potential satisfaction is more valuable than the life of another person, criminal or no. Yet whether or not the vilest criminal forfeits their right to life, it must be reasonable to say that the life of an innocent person should never be allowed to be forfeited by the state, and while there is even the slightest chance that an innocent person be killed for a crime they did not commit, we should not allow that possibility to once again become a reality. Better to have the worst criminal live life in prison, than have a guiltless person lose their life entirely at the hands of the state.
Figures from Captial Punishment UK
Read more at amnesty international