The death penalty in light of the recent murder convictions
The last three working days in a row, there has been a man convicted for acts of violence against women. Last Thursday, it was Steve (or was his actual name Steven?) Wright, the man who murdered five prostitutes in Ipswich in late 2006 (more: Outlines). On Friday it was Mark Dixie, who murdered an 18-year-old aspiring model, Sally-Ann Bowman, in Croydon in September 2005. Today, it was Levi Bellfield, who was convicted of the murder of two women and the attempted murder of another, in the Hampton-Twickenham area of west London and is suspected of several other attacks, most notably the murder of the 13-year-old Amanda “Milly” Dowler, from Walton on Thames, in 2002. Wright and Bellfield were given whole-life sentences; Dixie got 34 years to life. The response from one section of the tabloid press has been to demand the reinstatement of the death penalty.
All of these murders struck a chord with me, because I have personal connections to all the areas where the killings happened. Admittedly, my connections to Ipswich expired in 1993, but I recall someone in my dormitory at boarding school trying to persuade me, and a friend, to lose our virginity to a prostitute in Ipswich, not that it would have been one of these women, all of them much younger than me, but it would have been someone much like them. I grew up in Croydon and the nearest thing I had to a best friend at one point lived round the corner from the Bowmans; Bellfield’s stamping ground was just across the river from where I (and much of my family) live now. I am particularly glad he is out of circulation.
I am not opposed to the death penalty in principle. I would have no problem seeing all of these three men dead (or knowing that they were dead). I do have a problem with bringing it back as part of an emotional reaction to one perceived spate of killings, which appear connected only because the convictions happened on three consecutive working days. The problem with the death penalty in a western society is that our legal systems are known for putting innocent people behind bars, or on death row, on the basis of dubious scientific evidence or unreliable confessions, extracted under pressure (such as sleep deprivation or outright physical assaults) by police eager to gain “brownie points” and get promotion. In the last century, people spent decades in prison on the basis of such convictions and a mentally-retarded man, Derek Bentley, was executed because the person who persuaded him to take part in his robbery killed a policeman. It is cases like this which raise precisely the emotions which lead to wrongful convictions, such as that of Stefan Kiszko.
From what I have read in the media, these cases reveal that our legal system does a reasonably good job. We did not need to relax the burden of proof or disclose previous convictions or other information which does not prove that someone accused of the offence to hand actually committed it: the public, at least, were not told of the evidence linking Bellfield to the Dowler murder until after it was proven, beyond reasonable doubt, that he had actually murdered Marsha McDonnell and Amelie Delagrange. Juries do not need to be told that the accused is a general undesirable; it needs to be proven that he (or she) is guilty.
I do not believe for a moment that deterrence would put warped individuals like Wright, Dixie and Bellfield off murdering people they hate for their own reasons; Wright was not dissuaded by the fact that his DNA was on the files after he was booked for a petty theft in Felixstowe several years before, and neither was Dixie dissuaded from getting into a brawl in a pub after a football match, which led to his arrest. Both knew they would be caught, and most likely never see the light of day again. If there is a social explanation, I suspect it has much less to do with the criminal justice system than with a popular culture which portrays young women as sexual objects, and the newspaper which has been leading the calls for reinstating the death penalty is one of the most notorious for this, putting a pouting topless model on page three of every weekday edition. I believe that if we are to bring back the death penalty for anyone, it should be recidivist violent criminals such as serial robbers, since they are more likely to be deterred, and there are more of them than there are of senseless killers of young women.
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