The danger of a return to the death penalty

Priti Patel, a South Asian woman in her 40s wearing a white shirt open at the neck under a dark grey suit jacket, pointing her finger forwards. Behind her is a BBC background of different shades of pink and purple.
Priti Patel

The same weekend the government signed a wretched trade deal with the European Union which preserved the zero-tariff regime on goods but sacrificed almost every other advantage we had from being an EU member state, it has been revealed, or at least rumoured, that the government has been looking into restoring the death penalty, or at least holding a referendum on the matter. The death penalty was abolished in 1965 and at various times opinion polls have suggested that the public would vote for its restoration if it were put to a referendum, but Parliament (whichever party was dominant) has always resisted this and in 1998 abolished the death penalty for all remaining offences (which included treason and arson in royal dockyards, i.e. naval bases). Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, is known to support its reintroduction; on Question Time in 2011, in response to a question from the audience prompted by the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia, she claimed that “we have a criminal justice system which continuously fails … where we have seen murderers, rapists and people who have committed the most abhorrent crimes in society go into prison and then are released from prison to go out into the community to reoffend and do the crimes they were convicted of again and again”.

As anyone knows, the death penalty is irrevocable. Once done, it can never be undone and if an innocent person is put to death, they cannot be brought back. If the criminal justice system “continually fails” in terms of releasing people who then reoffend, which is a dubious claim, it can be changed so that the release of serious offenders is made harder, so that supervision after release is made more stringent or so that sentences are longer or that more life sentences imposed. If it fails by imprisoning people wrongly, it can be improved by improving standards of evidence or by making it easier to overturn wrongful convictions. If it fails by executing innocent people convicted on the basis of prejudice, a desire for revenge or a reliance on faulty science, these wrongs cannot be undone.

British justice is littered with wrongful convictions before and after the abolition of capital punishment. In 1950 a man called Timothy Evans was hanged for the murder of his wife and daughter who had in fact been murdered by the serial killer John Reginald Christie, the subject of the film 10 Rillington Place after the address in Notting Hill, west London, where he committed most of his murders. He was convicted in large part on the testimony of Christie himself; the jury were told about Christie’s own criminal history, but they chose to ignore it and convict Evans. Evans was granted a royal pardon in 1966 at the recommendation of the then Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, but remained dead. Better known is the case of Derek Bentley, the young man with learning disabilities who was hanged after his underage accomplice murdered a police officer during a robbery; the conviction hinged on his words, “let him have it”, which could be interpreted as “shoot” or “give him the gun”. In the spirit of the public outrage following the murder of a police officer, the jury preferred the former.

Since the abolition of the death penalty, many people have been convicted of murder or of terrorist offences on the basis of faulty science. A whole family was convicted of preparing bombs for the IRA after nitroglycerine was found on their hands in police tests; subsequent research found that household cleaning products could produce this result. In the 1990s, Sally Clark and Angela Cannings were both found guilty of murdering their babies who in fact died of cot deaths; this was influenced by a paediatrician, Roy Meadow, who claimed that multiple cot deaths did not happen. The two women spent years in prison before his science was discredited and other evidence was found to exonerate them. There have even been situations where a person was convicted on the basis of ‘science’ when the victim testified that it was not in fact them. In the US context, there may have been time to find such evidence when they were awaiting execution, but in the UK, executions were carried out weeks after the sentence was passed. In Evans’s case, sentence was delivered on 14th January 1950 and he was executed on 9th March the same year. Less than two months. American laws typically do not make the death penalty mandatory for all murders but for certain aggravated ones (e.g. where it was committed alongside another violent felony such as rape or armed robbery); in the UK, it was mandatory for all murders. If the law had been the same as in the UK pre-1965, Sally Clark and Angela Cannings would have been hanged.

We also cannot guarantee that our judicial system would safeguard people from being wrongly put to death by allowing lengthy appeals. Look at the anger displayed at the length of time it took to deliver Brexit, and that was only three and a half years. If we had the likes of Peter Sutcliffe still sitting in prison ten years after being sentenced to hang, there would be public outrage and a media campaign against a judicial system that “frustrates public demands for justice” and that keeps murderers alive while innocent people do not know where their next meal will come from (as if the death penalty was a solution to that). Right-wing tabloids have long clamoured for its reintroduction; only this weekend, former Sun editor Kelvin McKenzie posted a tweet comparing the ‘fight’ to that for Brexit and suggesting that a referendum on the death penalty should be the next step. In the United States, when the length of time people spend on Death Row and the conditions on such units are criticised, a common response from the political Right is to suggest that the convicted appeal less, and submit to the punishment. The same would be true here.

The reason I am against reintroduction of the death penalty is not because I am fundamentally morally opposed to the execution of murderers. I don’t believe a judicial execution is the same as murder or that society is diminished or degraded by the execution of the worst of the worst; it is, however, degraded by the careless execution of the innocent, even more so by that of the poor, learning disabled or those despised because of their race. In our system, there is the certainty of innocent people being executed because jurors are prejudiced, scientific evidence is accepted which is faulty, because the public are prone to a desire for retribution and blind to contrary evidence, and because police are sometimes more interested in being seen to “get their man” than in getting the right person, and because junior police are under pressure from their superiors who are themselves under pressure from politicians and the press. I can well understand why people would want to see child killers and serial murderers put to death, but in fact our system keeps such people in prison for decades and often the rest of their lives and still keeps the public safe; experience in the US shows that the death penalty would not deter a twisted mind.

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