Journal Column – Should we bring back the death penalty?

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Should we bring back the death penalty?

Following the recent and distressing murder of six year old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes by his father and stepmother and the violent rape and murder of Sarah Everard by serving police officer, Wayne Couzens, there have been calls to bring back the death penalty.

Given the horror of these two crimes alone, it’s an understandable view to take.

I used to support the death penalty, but for a number of reasons no longer do.  My column outlines why.

Britain abolished capital punishment in 1969 and as an EU Member State, was bound by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) not to reintroduce a death penalty.

One of the principle reasons for abolishing the death penalty was miscarriages of justice whereby some innocent people, like Timothy Evans, were executed for crimes they did not commit. The Evans tragedy is graphically depicted in the 1971 film “10 Rillington Place”. Some quick research revealed that over 31 people have been executed in error. While no system of justice is 100% perfect I don’t think we can accept that the potential execution of the innocent is a price we should pay.

Many supporters of the death penalty believe it acts as a deterrent as well as a just punishment. However, there is little evidence to support this.  In fact, many justice experts believe it has the opposite effect with offenders willing to kill in an attempt to evade capture.

For serious crimes, in this country, offenders are judged by juries. The jury of 12 deliberates the evidence and then decides on innocence or guilt. The system is far from perfect and juries are not infallible. Human nature will ensure mistakes will occur.  Indeed, a friend was on jury service and was somewhat aghast by some of the other jurors when they were considering the verdict.  One said “I can tell by his face he’s guilty”, another said “people from that area are all scum”. He said it reminded him of the 1957 film 12 Angry Men. In the film, Juror eight, played by Henry Fonda, convinces his fellow jurors to abandon their prejudices and find the convict not-guilty based on the evidence alone.  Unlike the film, my friend was unable to do that. The accused was found guilty by a majority.

It was also reported recently, that a jury, although convinced by the evidence that the accused was actually guilty, decided to find them “Not Guilty” as they were concerned the punishment they may receive might be too harsh.

While there are some very obvious and deplorable people who, since we abolished the death penalty, many wouldn’t mourn if they were executed, there has also been quite a few who, like innocent Stephen Downing and Stefan Kiszko, quite possibly would have been executed if we still had a death penalty. Perhaps one of the most well-known mischarges of justice was that of the Birmingham Six;

On November 21, 1974, IRA bombs exploded in two Birmingham pubs, killing 21 people and injuring hundreds. Six Irish suspects were arrested. During the subsequent trial, the defendants maintained their innocence, claiming that police, forensic and prosecution evidence was unreliable. They were convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. After a number of appeals, serious flaws in the evidence and widespread questioning of their guilt, the British authorities released them in 1991, 16 years after their conviction.  Given the enormous barbarity of the crime, it is highly likely they would have received a death penalty if we had one.

As mentioned above, the execution of innocents is a key reason cited for not having a death penalty.  Equally, though, those who support the reintroduction of capital punishment also cite the killing of innocents as a key reason. In their case its innocent people who have been killed by released prisoners who have gone onto kill again. Indeed, over the past decade, 129 criminals who were released have been given second life sentences for further offences. So, on the face of it, it’s a powerful and emotional argument.

However, emotional and kneejerk policy making, more often than not, creates a worse situation. Many of these awful crimes, capital punishment supporters illustrate,    could well have been prevented with more efficient and better use and upholding of existing procedures and policies already in place.

For example, if social services has acted sooner it’s highly likely little Arthur Labinjo-Hughes may well have been taken into care and saved.  Had the police acted and taken seriously on concerns over Wayne Couzens, it may have prevented him killing Sarah Everard.

There needs to be proper shake up of the Parole board too. They need to take far more responsibility over releasing serious criminals. I also don’t think any part of our justice system should be paid “bonuses”. The sheer seriousness of what the Parole Board does must not be influenced by financial incentives.  Not when large numbers of released criminals have gone onto kill again.

I will leave this last thought as a solution to both sides for the argument.

When the death penalty was originally abolished it was replaced by a “whole life sentence”. In other words, the perpetrators of serious crimes that, in the past, would have led to execution, instead must spend the rest of their lives incarcerated in prison. No release, no parole. A punishment which, I believe, provides justice and protection for all.

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This column was published in the Newcastle Journal on the 3rd January 2022.