Reintroducing the death penalty would serve only to fester societal hate and create yet more victims rather than be the answer to violent crime
On Friday August 3, in the midst of Olympic fever, 12-year-old school girl Tia Sharp went missing. A week later her body was found wrapped in a bedsheet and a binliner in the attic of her 46 year-old grandmother’s house. The grandmother’s partner, Stuart Hazell, 37, was soon arrested and charged with Tia’s murder.
Despite the grim reality of this horrific crime and others like it, the code of our modern justice system is theoretically ‘innocent until proven guilty’. However, in the eyes of a not insignificant section of the public, Hazell, who at this point has not yet entered an official plea, is guilty. He has become the target of a torrent of hatred, with the level of threats so severe that his court appearances have had to been given via video link to avoid public disorder.
And so the debate on capital punishment was re-ignited, a dividing issue in stark contrast to the euphoric and uniting glow of the Olympics. After flaming up last year following the introduction of Government e-petitions, the heat of the debate had abated after a petition calling for the reintroduction of the death penalty closed on 4 February 2012 with 26,349 signatures. This fell considerably short of the required 100,000 to be considered for Parliamentary debate.
Despite the fact that capital punishment cannot be brought back to the UK without effectively splitting away from Europe, the Tia Sharp case has sparked ferocious discussions on social networking sites, such as Facebook. One campaign was launched with a poster featuring Hazell opposite a convicted child murderer with a noose between them. Hate is a powerful mobilising force and a veritable flood of vengeful comments ensued. The page in question has had nearly 180,000 likes in just over two weeks and for many who are against the death penalty this is precisely the time when a Facebook ‘dislike’ button would be appropriate.
According to Amnesty International, more than two thirds of countries in the world have abolished capital punishment in law or practice as of 2010. Of the 58 countries that still allow it, only 21 were known to have carried out executions in 2011. Amnesty International’s view is clear: ‘The death penalty is the ultimate denial of human rights and constitutes the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state in the name of justice.’
So what are some of the arguments put forward in favour of reinstating capital punishment?
Cost is a big one, with calls for the “stringing up” of child murderers in particular. Many on Facebook are saying: “How much can a length of rope cost? Trees are free.” It doesn’t take a giant leap of the imagination to see how statements like this would, to some, make sense. However, when looking at the truth behind these arguments, a whole different picture emerges. In reality it costs societies a lot more to carry out executions than to hold convicted inmates in prison for the remainder of their lives. This is mostly due to legal costs involved in the high number of appeals. Although difficult to quantify in monetary terms, another facet to this is the potential value these inmates could have to society through education of young offenders on a road to serious crime and possible work with the families of their victims in an attempt to to heal through reconciliation and forgiveness. This is called restorative justice and US organisation Journey of Hope perform a lot of work in this area.
On the other side of the argument, there is deep concern about the effect this outpouring of animosity is having on society, and in particular, on young people. Mahatma Gandhi’s wise words that: “an eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind” resonate. At what point does the hate have to stop before it brutalises society, turning it into a vortex of violence? George Bernard Shaw succinctly said: “It is the deed that teaches, not the name we give it. Murder and capital punishment are not opposites that cancel one another, but similars that breed their kind.”
Another pro-argument is that capital punishment is a deterrent of violent crime. Yet there is insufficient evidence to prove this claim. In U.S. states where there is no capital punishment, crime rates are lower than in states where the death penalty still exists.
That execution of the offender is a healing factor for the families of victims is another widespread belief. Whereas this is a complex and deeply personal matter, in many cases it makes things worse for the victim’s family with conflicting emotions digging their grief up all over again, often many years later by the time the execution takes place. Murder Victim’s Families for Human Rights , a non-profit US organisation, state on their homepage: ‘The assumption that all victims’ families favor the death penalty is so entrenched that families who oppose the death penalty sometimes experience discrimination within the criminal justice system.’ That the death penalty creates yet another family of victims – that of the offender – is an additional adverse factor, often overlooked.
It is prudent to remember some of the massive miscarriages of justice in Britain that would have ended up with innocents losing their lives, had the death penalty not been abolished by then: The Guildford Four were convicted of murder and other charges in 1975, sentenced to life-imprisonment. In 1989 new evidence came to light rendering their convictions “unsafe and unsatisfactory” and they were released. The case of the Birmingham Six followed a similar path, with their release in 1991.
Whereas public support for capital punishment has fallen over the last few decades, polls such as MORI and Angus Reid still report a slight majority of the UK public in favour of re-introducing the death penalty, especially for the murder of infants and police officers. How much of this is due to beliefs based on misunderstood facts and how much is genuine support for this cruel punishment is unclear.
What is certain is that having the debate is crucial to raise public awareness and hopefully put to rest some of the myths surrounding this issue. Reprieve have a comprehensive information guide on their website for those who want to learn more.
A fitting way to conclude is perhaps in the words of someone very close to the issue. Britain’s last hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, who hanged 435 men and women said at the end of his career: “I have come to the conclusion that executions solve nothing, and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge.”
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