Opinion: Celebrate 50 years free of the death penalty

Noose, Old Austin County Jail, Bellville, Texas 0130101348BW
This week marks half a century since the last executions in England.

Around the world, the death penalty has been reduced to a minority practice. Only 58 countries mow use capital punishment. Asia is its last redoubt, where ninety per cent of executions take place there. It may well be connected that the continent in which democracy is least prevalent is where execution is most common. Many new democracies created in the last 50 years abolished the death penalty when they threw off the yokes of military dictatorship, communism or apartheid.

Killing countries still include, unfortunately, the most populous: China, India, USA (although in small numbers outside Texas) and Indonesia. It may be that very large countries are at risk of human remoteness between the ruled and the ruling, making it easier for execution to continue.

We should be proud of 50 years without executions. The House of Commons voted to scrap it, on a free vote, by more than 2 to 1. The Lords overturned a narrower Commons vote for abolition after World War 2. In every Parliament until 1997 a motion was laid to restore the death penalty and always defeated. The 1997-2001 Parliament abolished the theoretical remaining death penalties for treason and piracy.

Roy Jenkins was crucial as Home Secretary in securing abolition. The Liberal government in 1908 abolished the death penalty for juveniles. Lloyd George’s coalition changed the law in 1922 to make it less likely the mothers who killed their babies would be executed- an early recognition of mental health issues.

There are 4 reasons why we should be proud to have buried the death penalty:

  1. Killing people is wrong. The state should not kill people and does not need to except in war. The state should set a higher example.
  2. The practical reality is that the death penalty kills innocent people. We require a high standard of proof before convicting someone (“certain so you’re sure” is the formulation now given to juries) but many have been executed who have been later shown to be wrongly convicted. In 50 years, abolition has saved the lives of scores of defendants whose convictions have later been shown unsafe – sometimes connected to misbehaviour by the state (e.g. hiding exonerating material) or because of new technology such as DNA.
  3. Pragmatically, the death penalty would worsen some criminality. Once you create a Rubicon of capital offences and a criminal has crossed it he has little incentive to stop. There is certainly no good evidence that capital punishment deters murder more effectively than a life sentence does.
  4. The final reason will only apply if you hold to a belief, held by many religions and also by many humanists, that all human life has value and that human beings have capacity to change and be better tomorrow than they were yesterday. That may be faith rather than evidence-based but it is an idea that has often inspired the greatest, most audacious changes in history and we dare not abandon it.

Supporters of killing often say “how would you feel if your family was murdered.” They have a point. I would want to kill the perpetrators. But just because it is what I would want to, does not make it the right thing to do.

In the words of Aeschylus, famously quoted by Robert Kennedy in his public appeal for calm after the murder of Martin Luther King, “let us tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

Photo by Patrick Feller

* Antony Hook was a Liberal Democrat MEP for South East England (2019) and has practised as a barrister since 2003. He is currently Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on Kent County Council.

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  • Melanie Harvey 15th Aug '14 - 9:35pm

    Totally agree. The death penalty is state sponsored murder. The only way the eye for an eye argument has any weight is if the family carry out such supervised controlled murderous and cold executions themselves. For them to expect another to do so on their behalf should be seen as worse than the first violation. No different than hiring a hitman.

  • Richard Dawson 15th Aug '14 - 10:55pm

    Imagine the comments if you ran this article on the Daily Mail website. == blood lust and frothing at the mouth

  • Robert Wootton 15th Aug '14 - 11:11pm

    For people convicted of a crime, the first six months of their sentence (or perhaps the last six months of their sentence?) should be in a punishment prison and the remainder of their sentence in a rehabilitation prison. When a judge sentences someone found guilty of a crime against the person, the form of words used could be “You have disregarded the law prohibiting causing harm to another person; therefore you will be sent to a place where there is no law prohibiting causing harm to another person. The place would be a prison with no prison officers and no locks on cell doors. The prisoners would set there own rules to live by. There could be two types of punishment prison; one for people convicted of property crime and the other for people convicted of crimes against the person.

  • I’ve always been anti-capital punishment, mainly on the grounds that in the event of miscarriage of justice there is no method of correction. Too many have died. There are people still serving life for murder in the UK where I struggle to understand how they were convicted and how their appeals have failed.

    However, as I get older, and have now passed my half century and a bit, I find myself wavering at times. Those cases where there is no room for doubt, and modern forensics help there, and that are so extreme in violence and/or depravity that you feel physically sick at the mere thought of their crimes. I’m not interested in whether someone who has raped, tortured, and murdered children is capable of changing. I’m not interested in the deterrent effect of capital punishment in such instances. The guilty in those extreme cases have forfeited their humanity and their right to life.

    But I am unconvinced that our judicial systems are capable of the safeguards needed to avoid mistakes, and just one mistake would be state sponsored murder – all the current and historical evidence says innocent people would be killed. For that reason I still, just about, support continued abolition. Would I have loss a second of sleep if Fred West had been executed though? Not at all. In my head it has ceased being a matter of principle for an idealistic youth but one of lack of judicial trust based on too many miscarriages. Beyond reasonable doubt is not a sufficient bar.

    I don’t want to celebrate but to mourn those innocents who died before abolition, including Timothy Evans, for whom Roy Jenkins secured a Royal Pardon 16 years too late, and whose case heavily influenced eventual abolition. I don’t think you can be proud of not killing innocent people but you can be ashamed of the miscarriages that went before and for which no ex-gratia payments to relatives can make things right. You can also be ashamed of any MP who would vote for reinstatement based on rightful abhorrence of the Fred West type cases whilst knowing the risk of another Timothy Evans.

  • Whether or not you agree with capital punishment , the public consistently demand punitive punishment for the worst offenders, yet very rarely get it. The deal for its abolishment was whole life terms, which practically before the ink was dry on the abolition bill, was being subject to the cries of inhumanity from the liberal establishment and its useful idiots, as they increasingly demanded softer sentencing.

    The abolition of capital punishment, and the betrayal of punitive justice through imprisonment, in preference to restorative justice and early release schemes, is a perfect example of why the public despises the political establishment, and why it has given up on trusting it about anything.

  • Sorry but if proof is sufficient I think capital punishment should return, we spend more on a murderer than a person who has in life always tried to obey the law and be a good citizen and is in need of medical help in my view that is obscene

  • The best reason for no capital punishment is the wrongful convictions often fitted up by those in power (guess who) leading to lost life’s of the innocent and inability to bring them back. So yes abolition of the death penalty is worth celebrating

  • @Antony, well said. I am neither religious nor a humanist (in practice), but I still abhor the death penalty on your fourth point. To take the life of another is the ultimate act of wrongness (outside of euthanasia, which is a slightly different issue) because there is no way to react such an act. There is no way to right the wrong done. There is no way to mitigate it. One is either alive or dead – there is no Schrödinger’s cat in reality.

    The point is only typified by your other points: despite all the advances we have made as a society in the administration of justice, we still cannot make system perfect enough to make state sanctioned executions ‘safe’ – and if we could, I suspect we would have past the point whereby such forms of ‘justice’ are needed.

    On your point about Asia, my partner (who is Chinese) and I had an interesting discussion about this topic, yesterday. As her beleifs are not mine to discuss, I will not say them here, but it was interesting to review this topic from a different perspective.

  • I really think an exception should be made for sadistic and/or perverted childkillers. Mark Bridger (April Jones) and Stuart Hazell (Tia Sharpe), Ian Huntley (Holly Wells/Jessica Chapman) – I really resent the millions that keeping these vile amoral creatures in prison will cost us all .

    And I echo Raddiy’s comments about the way in which the consistent public mood on this is denied, decried and denounced as ‘incorrect’ brings politics into disrepute.

    As a Party (though on this issue in particular we are not alone) , our views are so far from a huge majority of the public on so many issues, we cannot hope to do well at an Election.

  • History is littered with people who have paid the ultimate price for society’s need to exercise their own “moral justice” usually on some unsuspecting individual who cannot fight back because the wheels of “justice” are in most part in the hands of the wealthy. Many innocent people have been hanged, gassed, lethally injected, shot etc etc, many with mental illness, historically we had even worse methods of capital punishment, for example the medieval ducking stool, “if she survives, she’s a witch, if she dies, she’s innocent”, regardless she’s dead.

    And remember the dead cannot be brought back into society, unlike someone serving a life sentence. If new evidence comes forward, like in the cases of the Birmingham six, the Maguire family, Barry George et al, far too many to name, innocent people who would have hanged, all were later released because of the original evidence was tainted and not factual, making the guilty verdicts unsafe.

    In the seventies serious miscarriages of justice were all part and parcel of the “justice system” we as members of the public allowed our politicians to create, police officers were sentenced to prison in the 70’s and 80’s when corruption was discovered.

    Since 1964 how many people charged with murder in court have been subsequently released from jail following fresh evidence often obtained thanks to investigative journalists or family members who unearthed evidence which challenged the official narrative of the original court case.

    In my humble opinion, if one innocent person hangs for something they didn’t do, that’s one person too many.

  • Richard Underhill 15th Mar '19 - 6:09pm

    I recall the Liberal Democrat News reporting that one of our then MPs had voted for what he considered to be “common sense”.
    Meanwhile a Conservative Home Secretary (Douglas Hurd) had voted against and the then PM (Margaret Thatcher) had voted in favour.
    There is scope for a Liberal Democrat party policy, preferably a red line.
    President Trump has expressed his views on Twitter, but the USA is deliberately and decisively federal.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Mar '19 - 11:33am

    Under the chairmanship of Russel Johnston MP I spoke at an ELDR conference, saying that “judicial execution is murder and the state has no right to do it” with a possible exception if their countries’ constitutions were based on the divine right of kings.
    Voting on all motions happened on a later day, but it seemed that Margaret Thatcher’s vote in favour of capital punishment and Douglas Hurd’s vote against were persuasive. I had referred to a report by Amnesty International, but made no mention of supporting evidence such as the miscarriages of justice, which do not occur in every case. Sticking to principles in difficult circumstances, such as now, is a test which this party will pass, but others will be tested.

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