On Ian Brady and the death penalty
Last week Ian Brady, a serial murderer of children from the 1960s, died in a “special hospital” (a high-security hospital which takes criminals who are mentally ill) aged 79. He had been convicted of three murders of children in 1966; he admitted to two more in 1985. His victims were of both sexes and between 10 and 17. He had been transferred from prison to the hospital in the 1980s after having been diagnosed as a psychopath; his accomplice, Myra Hindley, who helped lure and torture their victims although Brady did the actual killings, served out her time (she died in 2003) in prisons. According to Mark Easton on the BBC website, “Brady’s mug shot has become visual shorthand for psychopathic evil”; Martin Kettle in the Guardian the next day noted his and Hindley’s importance in the debate about abolishing the death penalty, which was abolished between the crimes and their being charged; Brady and Hindley “became the totemic faces of a Britain that they believed had ‘gone soft’ on crime”; he suggests that now that Brady is dead, “Britain can perhaps finally lay to rest the long and lingering possibility from the 1960s that hanging will ever return”. I’m not so sure.
The Moors murders took place in the early 1960s; nobody under 60 remembers them. Growing up in the 1980s, I remember Myra Hindley never being out of the news for long. Her notoriety by then was much greater than Brady’s; Brady made a nuisance of himself for the mental health staff looking after him and pursued various lawsuits but had never asked to be released. Hindley had always had admirers and sympathisers who presented her as a reformed citizen and a Christian, and harped on the Christian imperative to forgive those who wrong us; these notably included the Labour politician and penal reformer Lord Longford. The debate caused fury and this was reflected even in local newspapers far from Manchester; I recall letters in the Croydon Advertiser in the 1990s condemning the “sanctimonious claptrap” coming from Longford and in one case suggesting that the exhortation to forgive was not in reference to “torturers and killers of children or indeed any murderers”. A national tabloid stated in an editorial that Hindley should kill herself and that this is the one decent thing she could do (encouraging suicide is in fact a crime); I can recall an old lady calling into a night-time phone-in on LBC and state that she would kill Hindley if she were ever released; this sentiment was cited as a reason for denying her release on licence. I do not recall there being the same level of hatred towards Brady as towards Hindley during that time; his name was mentioned as an afterthought if at all.
Duncan Campbell, writing for the Guardian’s features section the same day, describes him as “the most hated man in Britain” and asks who “now fills the gulf of revulsion left by Brady”, coming up with suggestions such as Rosemary West, Peter Sutcliffe and Levi Bellfield. I don’t actually believe he was — he was in Hindley’s shadow — and none of the three he mentions, while the heinousness of their crimes approaches that of Brady and Hindley’s, attracts the degree of tabloid interest that Brady, let alone Hindley, did; joint public enemy number one for tabloid readers are the two men that killed the Liverpool toddler James Bulger as disturbed 10-year-old boys, whose every move has been scrutinised by the gutter press (which eagerly asks Bulgar’s mother her opinion every time) and who are regularly the focus of attempts to reveal their location on social media. While the death penalty was never an option (and would not have been even before 1964; the youth of cop killer Christopher Craig was the reason his learning impaired accomplice Derek Bentley was hanged in 1953), calls to execute them were also heard on talk radio during that time (one woman even suggested they be held until age 18 and then executed). Brady and Hindley were adults; the hounding of these two for something they did at age 10 demonstrates how unscrupulous the British tabloids are in pursuit of a profitable story.
Has the death penalty issue died with Brady? Sadly, I suspect it hasn’t. Support for its reintroduction has declined over the years, but dipped below 50% in the British Social Attitudes Survey only in 2015 (it had been 75% in 1983 when the survey began); the fact that politicians refused to reintroduce it despite much evidence of public support has been a continual gripe of right-wing anti-human rights agitators and politicians and if Brexit is followed by the abolition of the Human Rights Act, reintroduction of the death penalty is likely to be back on the agenda as a result. Personally, I would have no difficulty with Brady and Hindley or others like them being executed; the problem is that innocent people would be as well, as has been demonstrated amply in the USA since the moratorium on it was lifted in 1976. To take one British case, the judge in the original trial of the Guildford Four (who were jailed for an IRA pub bombing to which some actual members of the IRA later confessed) told one of them that he should have been charged with treason, which still carried the death penalty which the judge would have had no difficulty in passing. In an earlier British case, a serial murderer called John Christie framed a neighbour, Timothy Evans, for the murder of his wife and daughter, which had in fact been Christie’s doing. Evans was hanged; Christie went on killing and was eventually executed in 1953 for murdering his wife.
The police have a vested interest in being seen to get results, which at times outweighs the need to find the actual perpetrator; juries are swayed by prejudice, dominant jurors and fatigue towards wrongful verdicts. On other occasions people have been convicted on the basis of ‘science’ which was later proven to be false (as in another IRA case and more recently the many people convicted on the basis of a hair analysis technique that has since been debunked). I’m not swayed by the argument that the death penalty makes murderers of us all and would not stand between a man I believed to be guilty and his executioner, but the danger of executing an innocent person is too great, and the danger increases in the cases of the most heinous murders (serial killings, those of a sexual nature and/or where the victims are children, major terrorist atrocities) where many people would argue it is more justified. For this reason, I believe the death penalty should not be reintroduced in this country. Our legal and political system just cannot be trusted with it.
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