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March 11, 2006

The Death Penalty

I hadn’t actually known that we’d had a known and bone fide case of the execution of an innocent man in the UK. Now I do.

George Kelly was 27 when he went on trial in 1949 for murdering a Liverpool cinema owner and his assistant.

Despite his insistence that he was innocent, he was convicted and hanged the following year at Liverpool prison.

His conviction was quashed in June 2003 by the Court of Appeal but by then his body, buried in a prison grave, had been covered by a car park.

I realise that I’m terribly out of fashion, really do believe in the 100 guilty go free in order that one innocent not be punished, but this (excuse the phrase) really does put the nail in the coffin for me. I am and always have been vehemently against the death penalty, so perhaps I don’t actually need yet another fact to back up my opposition. But this does firm it up even more. Never again please, not in my country.

March 11, 2006 in Politics | Permalink


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I'm opposed to it as well.

But technology such as DNA profiling, practices such as the installation of CCTV and legislation such as PACE have all resulted in major alterations to the criminal justice system since the 1940's.

There seems to be substantial public support for a death penalty; and the public were never consulted on its abolition, which was effected by a free vote, the UK's last bastion of tyranny.

Shouldn't there at least be a referendum on whether it should be available under certain circumstances?

Posted by: Martin | Mar 11, 2006 8:33:11 AM

Recent opinion polls actually have shown only a minority in favour, 49% to 43% was the last one for murder of policemen (which is usually higher than just murders of ordinary citizens)

Posted by: Matthew | Mar 11, 2006 8:52:05 AM

You are forgetting about the deterrent effect of capital punishment. How many people, now dead, would still be alive had capital punishment not been abolished in the UK in 1965? Rather more than two, methinks. Since abolition, the murder rate has increased dramatically. Martin is right: scientific progress means that the chances of a wrong conviction are now significantly reduced. DNA evidence (which has a one in a billlion chance of being wrong) tells us for instance that James Hanratty WAS the A6 killer. The advantages of capital punishment firmly outweigh the disadvantages; it's high time it was reintroduced.

Tim adds: One in a billion isn’t true. Even if it were that’s still 6 people on the planet who could have done the crime.

But I am something of a fundamentalist on this. There are two, and only two, justified reasons for killing. In immediate self defense and in the course of a just war. No, the war on crime doesn’t qualify.

There is one other point. The re-introduction of capital punishment would mean the UK leaving the EU. Yes, I’m all in favour of that but how many others would take that bargain?

Posted by: Neil Clark | Mar 11, 2006 10:13:17 AM

There is little evidence for the deterrent effect of the death penalty. If it were simply the case that the death penalty deterred then past civilization would have "solved" violent crime by now. One of the defining ethics of the current jury system is that it is better to let 10 guilty people go free than to convict one innocent person. The death penalty inverts that ethic by saying that it is better to let one innocent person die than spare the lives of 10 guilty people.

Posted by: Steve A | Mar 11, 2006 10:39:12 AM

...then there's the Peter Hichens argument - that in the likes of Jean Charles de Menenes shooting we already have an unaccountable death penalty precisely because our police now need to be armed because the death penalty no longer deters would be armed criminals.

I don't think I believe it - I have always been implacably against the death penalty and, regardless of proof and evidence, determined to believe in the basic notion that anyone is capable of redemption even if guilty (though realise the current British prison system does not really produce that terribly often). But when I read it from him I could see where he was coming from.

Posted by: Jock Coats | Mar 11, 2006 10:44:21 AM

My idea is to have a capital crime of recidivism. Tried by a jury, the evidence presented would be the previous convictions and judges' remarks (not raking over the evidence in those trials). The convictions would have to be well-spaced in time, and manyfold. A single crime or crimes committed within a short time of each other are should not be subject to capital punishment, which is irreversible.

Posted by: Rub-a-dub | Mar 11, 2006 10:53:03 AM

I think the Peter Hitchens argument blurs the difference between enforcement of the law and due process of the law within the legal system. It is suggesting that the police are acting as jury and judege. I am not naive to think that apprehension of the violent often neccessitates the use of violence and that will sometimes mean used of lethal force to prevent further damage being done. That is very different to the deliberate state sanctioned of violence against a person who is already prevented from committing more violence against by being imprisoned.

Posted by: Steve A | Mar 11, 2006 10:53:56 AM

hey tim,dna evidence does not prove you did the crime,it proves you didnt do it... all the prior evidence for a rape(ie) ,you confess,the victim identifies you,all the evidence says you did it,will be ignored if the semen is not yours,whereas if it matches.....

Posted by: embutler | Mar 11, 2006 12:27:09 PM

This issue usually establishes which side people are on: if it was 100% obvious who had committed murder (eg murderer overpowered by witnesses) and there were no factors like insanity to take into account, would capital punishment be right? I say yes, not because of deterrence, but simply on pure retributive grounds.

Tim adds: You’re right, it does clarify things. I’d say no. Retribution and justice are two different things. As above, it is simply unjust to kill someone except in immediate self defense or in the course of a just war.

Posted by: Terry Cooper | Mar 11, 2006 4:21:44 PM

Timothy Evans was certainly not a murderer either.

Posted by: dave heasman | Mar 11, 2006 5:37:09 PM

Nor was Derek Bentley.

Neil, it's actually possible to research this issue. If the murder rate really has risen so much, it could be due to other factors besides the abolition of the death penalty.

So what we need are comparable populations, closely matched for most important variables. Happily, these exist. Here in one nation, which allows member states a certain freedom is these laws. New Hampshire, for instance, has the death penalty. It is also sandwiched between Vermont and Maine, both of which abolished it.

To save you the trouble of making complicated statistical calculations, they've been done.

BTW, statistics aside, I'm 100% with Tim here.

Posted by: Backword Dave | Mar 11, 2006 6:42:58 PM

Tim: Retribution is as much a part of criminal justice as rehabilitation and deterrence; and capital punishment is not the only form of retribution. Id like to see the death penalty reintroduced for certain types of murder; but it is just not going to happen. I do, however, wish that life meant life and that the bleeding heart liberals who run the criminal justice system would not release so many people who then promptly reoffend.

Posted by: paul | Mar 11, 2006 9:32:39 PM

The Death Penalty has very little deterrent effect, mainly because most people who commit murder don't expect to be caught.

Murder (and most types of crime) have risen because society has changed, not because of abolition.

The death penalty is state sponsored murder, and costs more than locking up and throwing away the key. Life without parole is much more suitable, although in the US they give them both. Telling someone that you are going to lock them in a box for 20+ years and then kill them is barbaric and worse than many of the crimes committed.

Posted by: Darren | Mar 12, 2006 10:54:55 PM

There is only one country in Europe that uses the death pealty-Belarus, and guess which is the only remaining dictatorship?
In 1957 the Homicide Act in the UK created capital and no capital murder offences. Until the Death Penalty (Murder) Bill1965,the rate for capital muder rose faster than for non capital murder

Posted by: Peter | Jun 14, 2006 10:52:53 AM