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Monday, 8 August 2011

Andrew Turner MP and the death penalty

For Halsbury's Law Exchange, published here

According to the BBC, Conservative MP Andrew Turner is attempting to resurrect the death penalty, if that is not a contradiction in terms. The BBC reports that Mr Turner has said that a full Parliamentary debate should take place about whether the death penalty should apply to those who kill children or police officers. He is endorsing an e-petition to that effect started by maverick blogger Guido Fawkes aka Paul Staines.

It is no great surprise to see something controversial from Staines, who takes pride in stirring up Westminster. It is however surprising to see a sitting MP run with something as tired and improbable as the death penalty, which I had assumed existed in Britain nowadays only as an Aunt Sally for jurisprudence tutorials.

Staines’s petition seeks a “review of all treaties and international commitments which may inhibit the ability of Parliament to restore capital punishment”. These alone would be a formidable obstacle given that in 2003 the UK acceded to the 13th Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits the death penalty under all circumstances.

There is always a certain level of public support for capital punishment, usually on the ground of retribution – as indeed seems to be Mr Turner’s motivation. Some even think a murderer should be killed by precisely the same means as they inflicted on their victim (raising two interesting questions: (i) who gets the job of carrying it out on behalf of the state; and (ii) what of serial killers?).

But I doubt a majority of the population remains in favour. Even if they were, I would hope that Parliament stands firm and resists reintroducing the death penalty. The whole concept of human rights is to provide a constraint on the power of the legislature; the majority rarely vote for their own oppression.

I say this because the arguments against the death penalty are legion and compelling. The first is the possibility of an innocent person being executed. Timothy Evans is the obvious example and indeed was an important factor in the abolition of the penalty. Mr Turner counters:

"Like many people I have concerns about the possibility of wrongful convictions, so perhaps we should consider whether before a death sentence could be passed, a higher standard of evidence would be needed than 'beyond reasonable doubt' which is used to secure a criminal conviction.

"Some people have suggested that there should be proof 'beyond the shadow of a doubt' before a death sentence ..."

Defining what would constitute “beyond the shadow of a doubt” as opposed to “beyond reasonable doubt” would be an interesting challenge for the most talented legislative drafters. It might simply mean that no-one would ever end up being executed anyway. Historically cases have shown that not even explicit confessions by the supposed killer guarantee certainty (they may have been forcibly extracted, or the confessor might be mentally disturbed in a way that is not immediately apparent). DNA evidence was thought to be the holy grail of criminal evidence when it was first developed, but it whether it would or would necessarily amount to removing the last “shadow” of doubt is questionable.

The second argument is that the death penalty is little deterrent to crimes that are committed in the heat of the moment, and in all cases is less important to any prospective murderer than the chances of getting caught. I am dubious about the various statistics that get bandied about supposedly in support of the argument that the death penalty leads to a reduction in the number of murders; there are so many factors involved in the commission of crimes rate that one has to say at least that the statistics are not compelling. They certainly would not meet Turner’s “beyond a shadow of doubt” standard.

The third and most important argument is that retribution as blunt as the death penalty does not really belong in a civilised society. There is no “humane” method of execution for a start. Moreover, it is highly questionable whether the death penalty is a greater punishment than life imprisonment (some might prefer death to squatting in a cell forever). For the sort of crimes Mr Turner has in mind whole life orders are a real possibility; indeed murderers generally receive much higher tariffs nowadays than two decades ago.

I was not a fan of rewriting history to overturn the verdict against Derek Bentley, for example, or the soldiers executed in the Great War (the former had his conviction posthumously quashed – though he would potentially have faced a retrial if still alive; and the latter received a sort of watered down pardon, with convictions intact, by Parliament in 2006). They were tried and punished in accordance with the standards of their time, and it seems wrong for any number of reasons for later generations to be expending public resources declaring that they know better.

But the point is that standards, attitudes and values have changed. We do not now clamour to attend public executions. We rightly deplore the standards of punishment in some extremist theocracies, as well as the standards of prisons in many countries. Hopefully therefore we can exact punishment without stooping to a murderer’s level.

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