Capital punishment: A Liberal opposition

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Between 14 July 2020 and 16 January 2021, the United States government executed its first thirteen criminals since 2003 – in fact, this was the most people ever executed in such a short space of time by the federal government.

However, fourteen states continue to execute people on a regular basis. President Joe Biden, a devout Catholic, seeks to end the death penalty at a federal level, but this does nothing to stop states or the several other countries around the world that still employ the method.

Indeed, several high-profile cabinet members in this country, such as Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and Home Secretary Priti Patel, have expressed the view that we should reinstate the death penalty in the United Kingdom. With all this in mind, let us remind ourselves why, as liberals, we firmly reject this development.

First of all, consider how it must feel on that day, both for the prisoner and the family. On the prisoner’s side, your last day is meticulously planned out, as revealed in this protocol from Montana. You will receive your last visitors at around 8am, and make your last phone call around 10:30. You may choose to spend all day with a chaplain, but all day the increasing knowledge of what is coming at the end will loom over you.

Now imagine what it must be like as a family member. After seeing your loved one for the last time – bearing in mind that you won’t be able to touch them, because even now you have to remain behind a glass window – you might return later to watch the end. Imagine how awful that must feel too. These people may have done horrible things, but at the end of the day they are human too, and have emotions and fears like the rest of us, and in any event their families don’t deserve the horror of seeing them dying such a horrific death, either in the electric chair or with an injection.

Quite apart from any of this though, the death penalty doesn’t fit with liberal ideas about justice. If the solution to a crime is to kill the criminal, the criminal misses out on an opportunity to learn why the action they performed was wrong. Even if there is no possibility the prisoner will ever leave prison, it still gives them a chance to review their behaviour and, when natural death comes, to be confident they understand what their punishment was for.

It also means that innocent people need not die – and 4% of all people executed could well be innocent. In addition to this, there is the paradox of killing people in the first place under the guise of the law. Especially if the condemned stands accused of murder in the first place, surely the state should not be doing that which it condemns in the people it is punishing.

I think we can all agree the death penalty for any crime is morally repulsive and, not only as liberals but also as humans, we should not fight against it wherever it is.

* Christopher Johnson is Vice-Chair of the Gwynedd and Anglesey Liberal Democrats, and Chair of the Bangor University Liberal Democrats. He ran for Bangor City Council in 2019.

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  • Peter Martin 25th Mar '21 - 10:43am

    I wouldn’t think there was any realistic prospect of the restoration of Capital Punishment. However, at the risk of playing devil’s advocate, it did have some benefits. Not the usual ones that we hear about from the Tory right, but more fundamental ones of trying to give the benefit of any doubt to the accused. We used to apply Blackstone’s principle which meant that it was better to let ten guilty persons go free than one innocent to suffer.

    We’ve since reversed the meaning of that. We’d rather have ten innocents suffer than one guilty person go free. Now, as we don’t have capital punishment, it’s much easier to bang someone up for life on the basis they ‘might have done it’. Even an acquittal isn’t final as it used to be. If the police and CRC have the inconvenience of a Not Guilty verdict then there’s no real problem. Just take a look in the evidence bag, ‘find’ a sample of DNA that somehow was previously overlooked and have another go!

  • Christopher does well to highlight the issue, and it’s not just in the USA.

    Some years ago, the British lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith addressed a session at Lib Dem Conference in Bournemouth. Clive founded ‘Reprieve’ and has campaigned tirelessly on this issue over many years. Website details below indicate how to give support :

    “Reprieve › us We are investigators, lawyers and campaigners fighting for justice. We defend marginalized people who are facing human rights abuses.

    You can also support Amnesty International.

    I well remember when Ian Hislop showing up the limitations of Priti Patel :
    Ian Hislop on Capital Punishment – › watch
    7 Jan 2014 — From BBC Question Time. Show less Show more. Transcript. NaN / undefined. Ian Hislop revisits the Priti Patel moment.

  • David Langshaw 25th Mar '21 - 11:46am

    Following on from Peter Martin’s point, another unintended consequence of restoring capital punishment might be an increase in the number of “Not Guilty” verdicts. Any juror who is squeamish about the death penalty might well vote to acquit – and it is highly unlikely that a judge would don the black cap in the absence of a unanimous verdict. So, if Gove, Patel et al. want criminals removed from society, they shouldn’t press for the restitution of capital punishment.

  • Fine piece, though preaching to the choir, i would imagine. @Peter Martin’s reference to the Blackstone principle got me thinking. What would we feel if that principle resulted in a very low level of convictions for certain offences ?

  • Peter Martin 25th Mar '21 - 12:33pm

    @ Chris Cory,

    This is happening now with rape cases. There’s move to prevent defendants having the right to demand full disclosure of text and email messages which might show they are in actual fact innocent.

    It’s a reaction to the Liam Allan case. So we have to decide, as a society, if we think Liam should have been convicted. Those who wish to prevent full disclosure clearly do.

  • John Marriott 25th Mar '21 - 1:54pm

    As someone who has always opposed the death penalty, even for treason, I do hope that we don’t go down that slippery slope. Just one innocent person executed by whatever means is one too many in my book.

    Remember Timothy Evans or Derek Bentley, to give just two examples.

  • I was already against capital punishment for a variety of reasons, but it’s an interesting point about a possible shift in the level of evidence required for a person an a jury to assign guilt, or if they’d refuse to find them guilty at all.

    As far as I’m aware, our courts are still supposed to proceed on the Blackstone principle, but it does seem to be challenged more, especially for rape cases. IMO, the way to ensure more reliable rape convictions is to properly fund the CPS and all of the many steps in the process from the crime being reported to it reaching court in a timely fashion. The Secret Barrister book is particularly enlightening about the very real problems with getting cases to court, which lets down victims and those wrongly accused. And a lot of the time the current system lets down those who are genuinely guilty who still deserve efficient justice, especially if there is to be hope of rehabilitation.

    IMO, it’s a mistake to restrict access to phone records, so long as it’s done by the right people with the right training. If our legal system can’t find the resources to get the right people for that job, then the whole thing is messed up.

  • Peter Martin 25th Mar '21 - 3:23pm

    There have been many cases of miscarriages of justice. The well known ones like the B’ham 6 and Guildford 4. The not so well known one like Michael Shirley, Michael O’Brien, Darren Hall and Ellis Sherwood.

    Every single one is a powerful argument against the death penalty. Every one is also an argument that the British judicial system in the “world’s best” and that we believe in such concepts as “innocent until proven guilty”, and the test of “beyond reasonable doubt”.

    Even when it is clear for all to see that a miscarriage of justice has occurred it can take years for our snail-paced legal system to correct mistakes. In many cases the innocent end up serving longer time than the guilty because of continued claims of innocence.

  • Breandan Murphy 25th Mar '21 - 9:15pm

    Personally I think we should fight it.

    Pssst. Extra “not” in the final sentence.

  • Helen Dudden 26th Mar '21 - 9:36am

    I must say that Priti Patel does not come across as a woman who understands compassion.
    The Death Penalty is not the answer, nor the plans she has for those who have been trafficked. To solve the issue, it needs to be a united effort.
    Its not that long ago women were sold at Heathrow, some not even able to speak English, they were not aware of what had been planned.

  • Zachary Barker 26th Mar '21 - 9:23pm

    Thank you for the well written piece about an important issue.

    Unfortunately I believe with the way the Tories are moving through their agenda (immigration, culture wars, foreign aid, defence) we will see the death penalty raised as a serious policy proposal by them within my lifetime.

    For my part I will do everything I can to see that it does not pass.

  • Joseph Bourke 26th Mar '21 - 10:43pm

    Brings to mind the quote from the American rabbi, Chaim Potok “Each generation thinks it has to fight new battles. But the battles are the same. Only the people are different”.

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