Martin Shapland writes: A petition to retain the ban on capital punishment

You can tell it’s silly season. The top story today is that a petition on the Death Penalty is at the top of the government’s new e-petition site. You might not have noticed that the petition with the most signatures says – ‘Retain the ban on Capital Punishment.’

Yes I launched the petition; no this isn’t a vanity project. Paul Staines (AKA Guido Fawkes) and the Daily Mail, which have both launched campaigns to restore the death penalty, need to be opposed. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance and most Members of Parliament happen to be on holiday.

It might be a popular truism that the British People want the death penalty; I don’t believe it for a second. It’s not a major ask on the doorstep and it’s nowhere near the top of voters’ priorities but during recess it’s a great issue for bored journalists and we should not be afraid to challenge the Daily Mail’s narrative.

I am not trying to shut down debate. I would welcome a debate on the floor of the House of Commons, where we could demonstrate that the Death penalty is more expensive than life imprisonment, does not act as a deterrent against crime, is terminal in cases of miscarriage of justice and is used most of all by such beacons of Justice and democracy as China, Iran, North Korea, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Syria.

If this is a race, so be it, small ‘L’ liberals of all parties – and whilst I am a Liberal Democrat this is a petition where I ask people of all and no party to sign – we shouldn’t be afraid to put our case to the public at large.

To me the death penalty is abhorrent, it is brutal and it puts us on a par with the murderers whose lives the ultra right wing would like to see us end. Unless in self defence, no person, or state, should have the right to end a life. If you agree with me sign the Petition to retain the ban on Capital Punishment today.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I have signed this. I agree completely with it. It’s a shame you misspell the verb ‘practise’ twice in the petition. Perhaps this can be corrected before it is submitted.

  • “is used most of all by such beacons of Justice and democracy as China, Iran, North Korea, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Syria.”

    What about Japan and USA? I wasn’t aware they were uncivilised and authoritarian dictatorships. There are strong arguments against the death penalty but “these nations use it as well” isn’t one of them given that they don’t exactly have fair and rigorous judicial systems.

  • Adam Gillett 4th Aug '11 - 11:32pm

    Richard, the problem with Japan and the USA is simply a different one from that which occurs in the other countries listed. In Saudi, Libya and North Korea, for example, execution is ordered by a judge without a jury’s decision. It is (quite simply and horribly) a state-authorised killing.

    In Japan and the USA, the situation is more complicated and backs Martin even further. Where a jury is able to decide on the guilt of a person for whom guilt would mean the death penalty, the jury often acquits and frees the person simply to avoid the responsibility of having sent a person to be executed. This means people who would have been charged as guilty and held responsible for their crimes going free with astonishing regularity (the other side of this being the gradually increasing banality of deciding others’ deaths).

    The fact is that juries and executions do not go together. There is something about the power of the death penalty that does not sit right with democracy. How do you democratically justify taking away part of the demos? It’s a fallacy, it’s brutal and it’s ridiculous.

  • “How do you democratically justify taking away part of the demos? It’s a fallacy, it’s brutal and it’s ridiculous.”

    We could reduce the deaths of innocent members of the demos by banning the army from going to war, disarming the police and banning cars from going above 10mph. The sad fact is that innocent people will die as a result of state policy in all areas. That doesn’t of course mean that we therefore shouldn’t care but it does go to show that there is a balancing act. It’s interesting to note that when the death penalty was temporarily suspending in the late 40s and 50s armed robberies went up. Of course I’m sure there is also evidence that the death penalty does not have a deterrent effect – America is pointed to as a typical example, although its reintroduction in Texas did appear to lead to a reduction in murders. My long-winded point is that the “innocent people may die” (and that is less likely to happen with modern technology, the reintroduction of unanimous juries, right to silence and other abolished liberties) argument is not as compelling as it first seems.

    By the way, changing subject slightly: “It might be a popular truism that the British People want the death penalty; I don’t believe it for a second. ”

    The polls appear to contradict this. Yes it’s not the top of everyone’s concerns but polling has consistently showed it to be popular (which of course is not a reason for reintroducing it).

  • Whichever petition you sign it will just make it more likely that Guido gets the outcome he wants – ie a debate on the floor of the house. This is a really ill-thought out idea.

  • Adam Gillett 5th Aug '11 - 12:14am

    Richard, I’m sure you’re fully aware what a massive fallacy your point there was. There’s a difference between choosing to join the army/the police/drive a car (or even going to bed, as almost 10 people a year die from falling out of one of those, or crossing the road, or any voluntary action whatsoever) and asking people to choose whether a person lives or dies. Had you said conscription you would have had a point, but we outlawed that as well, for much the same reason.

    I’d tackle your second point, but the overwhelming cost and, in fact, all other figures, point against the death penalty, so I’ll leave it to you to look them up if you want to.

  • I’m open to reinstating the death penalty and support your petition since it will help foster debate. Personally I think there is a case that abolition led to a significant increase in the homicide rate, leading to the conclusion that reinstating it could lead to a significant decrease.

    Having said that I think there is a problem in implementing the death penalty. I don’t think every murderer deserves execution, yet I doubt there will be much of a deterrent effect unless any killing could be punished by death. Then there are problems with burdens of proof, conviction rates, and lastly methods of execution. This is why I’d liked to see parliament debate the issue and see what conclusions they draw.

    I just hope any debate won’t be a liberal whitewash. Judging by what I’ve seen so far very few abolitionists engage in proper debate and instead resort to parrot like repetition of cheap phrases like “an eye for an eye”, “two wrongs don’t make a right”, or “isn’t killing a murder ironic”.

  • “Richard, I’m sure you’re fully aware what a massive fallacy your point there was. There’s a difference between choosing to join the army/the police/drive a car (or even going to bed, as almost 10 people a year die from falling out of one of those, or crossing the road, or any voluntary action whatsoever) and asking people to choose whether a person lives or dies.”

    I was looking at it from the perspective of a government making policy whereas you’re looking at it (presumably) from the perspective of an individual on the jury so I will tackle this point. Juries have in this country in the past (and do in the US and Japan) made the decision. Therefore there are those who are prepared to make the decision and live with it. I grant you there are those that are a bit more squeamish or have moral objections to the death penalty – fine. Perhaps there should therefore be a requirement that those serving on juries for murder should take an oath stating that they will not refrain from finding someone innocent even if they believe them to be guilty (and any refusing such an oath would be excused a murder trial and put onto something where the death penalty wouldn’t arise as a punishment).

    “I’d tackle your second point, but the overwhelming cost and, in fact, all other figures, point against the death penalty, so I’ll leave it to you to look them up if you want to.”

    Not so fussed about cost as I’m wary of arguments that monetary considerations should dictate how we punish criminals, especially as law and order is government’s primary responsibility after defence of the realm. As for the other figures over the years I’ve seen evidence for and against it being a deterrent. The problem of course is that that evidence comes either from the past when we had a different sort of society or from other countries where they have different cultures. Not to mention there’s other factors that can affect the murder rate. It occurs to me that introducing the death penalty into the UK for a period of, say, 10 years, and seeing if it has any impact on the murder rate, might help to clear things up. However I would be reluctant to see it reintroduced without the restoration of the various legal safeguards I mentioned previously.

  • *”they will not refrain from finding someone innocent” should be “someone guilty”

  • Ok, I’ve signed it. But do they actually monitor these e-petitions in any way?
    All you have to prove is a valid email address.
    Given that I have four,* I could presumably sign the same e-petiion four times and they’d not know.
    Easy enough to ‘borrow’ say neighbours’ postal addresses.

    *work, friends/family, online shopping, and a spare one courtesy of my broadband supplier that I’ve never used.

  • …just thought. I know two ‘hang ’em, flog ’em’ types at work. I have their work email addresses, their home addresses are on the staff list…. 😉
    OK, I won’t. But it proves the e-petitions are open to mischief and abuse.

  • Daniel Henry 5th Aug '11 - 9:50am

    Since they take your address perhaps they compare it to the electoral register.

    I’ve half a mind to fraudulently sign on behalf of a friend, just to see if I can! 😉

  • Well done, Martin – I don’t think it’s ill-conceived at all. It would of course be redundant if it weren’t for Guido’s vanity project, but since there’s at least a chance that the pro-hanging one may get the necessary signatures it’s vital to show that the other side of the debate also has public support. Otherwise there’s a risk of a narrative taking hold that the public are overwhelmingly pro and it’s only parliament keeping us vaguely civilised…

    I’m delighted that the anti petition currently has more signatures, let’s hope it stays that way! If the UK ever reinstated the death penalty I’d emigrate immediately.

  • @Mary Reid the petitions don’t even force debates. The pack bench business committee can decide whether to allocat time to a petiton for debate if it reaches 100,000 signatures.

  • I oppose the death penalty, but i do agree that this petition will simply make it even more likely that the matter has to be debated in parliament as there is such strong feelings on both sides. Whilst i oppose the death penalty, there is a huge problem with our criminal justice system. If prison was a proper punishment and murderers sentenced to LIFE actually spent LIFE in prison then there would be less calls for the reintroduction of the death penalty.

    So i hope if parliament does get round to a debate on the Death penalty issue, they consider reasons why so many want it introduced and understand the need for tougher punishments.

  • @jedibeeftrix
    For all the Telegraph’s wishful thinking, the studies they cite have all been roundly criticised for their inappropriate statistical analyses (which no doubt is why the authors all had to publish in fairly obscure journals). There were similar studies in the 70s claiming to demonstrate the efficacy of the death penalty, but when examined by the National Academy of Sciences the conclusions were found to be ‘flawed’.

    I’m not saying it definitely doesn’t ‘work’ – indeed it would be surprising if there weren’t at least some deterrent effect for certain types of murder. The trouble is that the crimes which might be prevented are usually those for which most people aren’t calling for the death penalty anyway. 

    The most common cases for which people say the DP would be warranted are terrorism, serial killers and child murders. Even if terrorists aren’t suicide bombers, they’re  usually fanatical enough not to be bothered about the prospect of execution (e.g. the Bali bomber who notoriously gave a thumbs up on receiving his execution sentence). 

    Both serial killers and child murderers tend to have serious mental or personality disorders. Mental disorders (such as psychosis which is a common contributing factor) preclude the possibility of the murderer thinking rationally about the potential consequences. And the usual personality disorder involved is what is commonly known as sociopathy – in which case the killer is rational but usually not put off by thoughts of negative consequences. Psychiatrists who study sociopaths say that they are motivated primarily by reward rather than punishment (to the extent that police negotiators are advised to reverse their usual technique if they begin to suspect that the criminal they’re dealing with is a sociopath).

    Another type of murderer is one who kills someone in a moment of anger (i.e. someone just snaps). Here again the killer is unlikely to stop and think  about the consequences before acting, so the severity of said consequences won’t provide a deterrent.

    So in effect, the people who are likely to be deterred by the DP are those who commit more ‘casual’ premeditated murders, such as someone killing a parent / spouse for an inheritance etc. It might also have an effect on some rape-murder cases, though again I think many/most predatory rapists have sociopathic tendencies, and non-predatory date rapes don’t tend to be followed by murder.

    All I’m saying is beware of studies that claim to show how effective capital punishment is – leading statisticians and scientific bodies say they’re based on flawed analysis and that the statistics don’t permit conclusions to be drawn one way or another (primarily because you’d need a far larger sample size than that afforded by executions to date).

    Of course, whether it ‘works’ or not has little bearing on the morality of it. I have little doubt that cutting off thieves’ hands ‘works’ (and given a typical thief’s psychological profile it’s probably a far more effective deterrent than the death penalty for murder). It doesn’t change the fact that idea of the state purposely mutilating or killing people is abhorrent. I’d rather risk being murdered than live in such a country.

  • ‘To me the death penalty is abhorrent’ – well, that is a relief 🙂 For a moment there I was worried. It is good to see you coming out so strongly on this controversial issue within the party… :-p

  • But on another note, completely behind you.

    @jedibeeftrix, statistics or not (and as Catherine says, those you mention are questionable), the power of the state to kill an individual is ridiculous in principle let alone practice… The inherent fallibility of the state, and of people, makes this a complete non-starter. As @Catherine said: whether or not it works has little bearing on the morality of it.

    What I am amazed by is that tea-party folk and former-libertarians can think the power of the state to tax is wrong but seem to see no contradiction when supporting the power of the state to kill. It is almost as if they value money – in any amount – more than human life. In which case they are not liberal or libertarian, or ‘freedom-loving’ except when that freedom applies to cash transactions and nothing else.

    Also, lovely coverage for Martin:

  • ‘there are many cases where guilt is absolutely not in doubt’ – how do we determine these cases?

    [I agree with your point about the ultimate weakness of the argument, but I am not sure it is a useless rhetorical argument – especially as there are still cases where people are ‘certain’ where it turned out not to be the case after all.]

  • @jedi… And a worthy addition to the debate, as it is always useful to avoid – as you say – the echo chamber effect 🙂

  • @jedi and Henry
    Agreed – as with anything it’s important to examine all angles. And there are dodgy arguments on both sides of this debate… One that’s always made me uncomfortable is the financial argument that anti-capital punishment campaigners have sometimes used in the US, basically that it’s more expensive to execute someone than to keep them in prison for life. Comes back again to what Henry said about some people (from all political camps) focussing more on money than on the value of human life.

  • A statistic that always seems to be conveniently missing from these ‘death penalty’ debates is this: How many people have died at the hands of previously convicted murderers and how many of them would be alive now if those murderers had been executed, instead of being handed a prison sentence?

    Do THOSE innocent lives not count? I have seen a figure of 70+ in material I have read in the past – perhaps someone with a little backbone would be willing to pursue that avenue of investigation, or is it just easier to pretend they never happen and that killers never re-offend (in or out of custody)?

  • Toby Parker 7th Aug '11 - 11:36pm

    Thank you for creating this petition; I too am firmly against the death penalty.

    The only people who seem to want the death penalty back are Daily Mail readers – speaks for itself, doesn’t it? They’re obviously not the sharpest tools in the shed… 😀

  • Is it not self defense when a whole society does not want a killer among it’s members?

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