Saturday, 30 July 2011

On capital punishment

A prominent political blogger has launched a campaign for restoration of capital punishment.

Some doubt that blogger's sincerity in doing so. If he is insincere, then it would be a rather crass form of opportunism for a blogger to promote his site by urging more people to be killed than otherwise would be.

But his sincerity ultimately does not matter.

This is a debate which needs to be aired every so often, and the argument against capital punishment is one which needs to prevail - and be seen to prevail - each time the debate takes place. People's minds can be changed.

First of all, there are some easy practical points to make against capital punishment. For example, capital punishment is not actually cheaper, as the costs of the inevitable appeals and re-appeals mean that it is rather an expensive process. It also places witnesses further at risk, as the murderer now has every interest in avoiding detection and capture.

Of course, the most significant practical argument against capital punishment is that it is irreversible.

Any mistake cannot be rectified. It relies entirely on the efficacy of a criminal justice system which, at best, can lead to determinations of guilt "beyond reasonable doubt" (and that is often got wrong). The criminal justice system does not provide the means of making decisions based on absolute certainty. Indeed, each component part of the criminal justice system - police investigations, media clamour, prosecution decisions, conduct of trials, soundness of appeals - can go wrong. There is nothing to suggest that the judicial taking of human life would be based on any infallible process.

Then there are the points to be made about the intellectual confusion of many who support capital punishment. There are the "libertarians" who do not accept that the State has the legitimacy or competence to administer taxes or provide the police with powers but then contend that the State can rightly and safely take lives. There are those religious fundamentalists who blithely disregard the imperatives of their own holy texts.

And then there are those who favour the deterrence argument, who contend that the deliberate taking of life by the State somehow sends a signal that the deliberate taking of life is wrong. Even on its own terms, taking a life as a "deterrent" is manifestly unjust: it means that the punishment is not on the basis of the facts of its own case, but on the basis of speculation about incidents which may never exist.

However, none of the above points are conclusive, even if they are compelling to any sensible person. One could accept all the points so far made and still, in one's gut, believe that capital punishment is not wrong and so should be made available to the courts, perhaps only in exceptional circumstances.

This is the view which I am seeking to challenge.

Such a sentiment is often premised on murder being a uniquely bad crime and that it is not capable of being punished by mere imprisonment.

That murder is a uniquely bad crime is generally correct (though there are other serious offences against the person which also render the victim with a life which is effectively over).

The deliberate taking of life is a revolting act which requires severe punishment.

However, it does not follow that for the State to then deliberately take the murderer's life that there has been some morally right outcome.

The deliberate taking of life is still absolutely wrong, even when it is orchestrated by police, lawyers, and executioners. All one has achieved is another moral wrong.

Capital punishment is wrong because it formally requires other people to be complicit in the deliberate taking of human life.

One may have the enthusiast who would "pull the lever themselves" but one often gets people who want to kill others for the "right reason".

But capital punishment demands more than a willing executioner and cheering spectators; it needs for the whole of the State apparatus to be augmented so that the end of a given formal process is the deliberate killing of a human being. The absolute wrongness of the original act is then repeated by the State on our behalf.

This is why capital punishment can be fairly said to be barbaric. It takes something which is wrong, and then projects it on the political and legal institutions of the State: it makes repeating that wrong a purpose of public policy.

And this is not to be a "bleeding heart liberal" about murderers. One can readily support "life meaning life" with no possibility of parole.

But killing people, like torturing people, is wrong; and is still wrong when it is arranged and done by officials on our behalf.

Two wrongs make two wrongs.

(As a footnote, I supported capital punishment as a teenager. I was brought up in a Tory environment, and I held many illiberal views about "law-and-order". But with the patience and kindness of decent sensible people my opinions were challenged and exposed as incorrect and inhumane; because of this I arrived at all the positions I set out above. That is why I regard engaging in debates as important. The devil may well have the best tunes; but the liberals will usually turn out to have the better arguments.)


Also see this excellent post by Charon QC, doyen of legal bloggers, setting the background to the current debate.


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.


Mr Civil Libertaian said...

"And then there are those who favour the deterrence argument, who contend that the deliberate taking of life by the State somehow sends a signal that the deliberate taking of life is wrong."

I fear you give the advocates too much credit; I have heard the deterrence argument many times before. The problem is, it doesn't take the form of "It sends a message to others", but is very often "It stops that particular criminal re offending, so it must be a deterrent".

make_trouble said...

Please, I beg of you. Don't make this another right vs left issue. It isn't. You can take a right wing economic stance and still have a liberal approach to law and order. I am a Tory and completely against capital punishment. Do not tar us all with the same brush, please.

The intelligent, dispassionate view always has to be anti capital punishment.

Damo said...

'Reasonable doubt' is surely the key issue. Significant mistakes were made in high profile cases in the mid twentieth century that led to capital punishment being abolished in the first place.

If it were to be re-instated, it It is hard to imagine that the same mistakes would not be made in 5, 10, 20 years time and innocent people would pay the price.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to vote for it, not because i think it will happen (indeed I'm sure it won't see light of day), but because it may lead to sterner sentences as a consequence.

For I believe that life inprisonment should be closer to life, not what it's become.


Donald Brown said...

Capital punishment vs life in prison costs. The US seems to have a very long drawn out appeals process, with some inmates on death row for a decade or more. But in the UK, was it not typically the case that only a matter of a few weeks elapsed between sentencing and execution?

If it were reintroduced would we have a similar scenario as now exists in America?

Jamie Graham said...

The pro-state murder people tend to have a stereotype in mind when they think of a "typical" murderer: male, young, sneering, (non-)working class, possibly of a different race, someone they've never met. The problem is, as with all stereotypes, it isn't true. There isn't a typical murderer and the law cannot make exceptions for those who don't fit the profile that the sponsors of such legislation had in mind.

Because a man can generally kill a woman with his bare hands but a woman generally can't kill a man that way, when women kill their abusive husbands it's usually premeditated and done when he is asleep or drugged or drunk. Premeditated murder of someone previously incapacitated is seen as the worst of all murders, even though the woman in question murders her husband to save her own life. The legal system doesn't make exceptions; the woman would hang, law in action but no justice. Meanwhile, the drunken wifebeater murders his wife accidentally when 'just' meaning to give her another beating. That he was drunk and didn't mean to kill gets taken into account; the man goes to prison *for the same crime the woman hangs for*, again showing us the might of the law but a lack of justice.

Then there's someone who kills when they're young, is never found and forty years pass, during which they have a family and are never arrested for anything else. One day, new evidence comes to light, the grandfather in his 60s is arrested, tried and hanged, because the law cannot make exceptions. I can see the law working here, but not justice.

Then there's the Bulger killers. They were 11 years old. We tried them as adults. There was a baying mob throwing bricks at the police vans as they left court. That mob, presumably, would've torn them apart - killing two 11 year old boys. The pro-death camp may well have been amongst the mob; the law doesn't make exceptions - the mob would have to go to the gallows. And that mob was loudly calling for the execution of two 11 year old boys, because once you have the death penalty, the tabloids and the mob will shout for its ever-wider use. Some in the mob, claiming to be reasonable, said boys should be executed when they turned 18. Really? On their birthdays? A few weeks later? How long will you wait for it, mob? Whatever, we just see the law in action again - but never any justice.

The death penalty is like a nuclear weapon: you can debate having one or not, but you should still never use it; it does far more damage than can ever be justified.

ObiterJ said...

I have no intention of entering this latest outburst of madness. You are right - period!

Paul said...

As far as I can see, the main reason for renewed calls for capital punishment is that sentencing has been cut and cut in many ways.
If a life sentence for a cold blooded murder actually meant that the murderer would never walk free, then capital punishment becomes an economic argument.
But if 'life' can actually mean only seven years safely off the streets, then something more is wanted by the populace.
Retraining, social conditionng and all the other good things our prison system try to do fail in a lot of cases. They will never be 100%. So are we happy to accept that a fairly high proportion of people who commit crimes for which the sentence used to be 'in prison until you die' are now back amongst the innocent public, unrehabilitated, after only a decade or so?

blondpidge said...

I would agree but also go a little further. Life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is also ethically contentious. A civilised and compassionate society should also offer the opportunity of redemption and rehabilitation.

Though I anticipate the usual howls of outrage and "what about Venables" remarks, justice is not purely concerned with retribution and vengeance. To lock someone up for life with no absolutely hope of release is almost as barbaric as the death penalty.

Prison needs to be reformative as well as punitive. Unless someone is clearly dangerous, then they should not serve an indefinite sentence.

The Heresiarch said...

I'm pretty firmly against the death penalty, but there's one circumstance in which I would find it quite hard to argue against. And that is where these conditions are satisfied:

1) The criminal admits his guilt (and is mentally competent)
2) The sentence of the court is life imprisonment without parole
3) Given a free choice between life imprisonment and death, the prisoner CHOOSES to die.

Ann Kittenplan said...

Thanks for this. Capital punishment is wrong for so many reasons, good to see many of them articulated here. For me it's some kind of litmus test of our retreat back into the Dark Ages: we'll know we've arrived if/when capital punishment is re-introduced.

Martin Budden said...

The arguments

"It takes something which is wrong, and then projects it on the political and legal institutions of the State: it makes repeating that wrong a purpose of public policy."


"But killing people, like torturing people, is wrong; and is still wrong when it is arranged and done by officials on our behalf."

also apply to the act of waging war. (By waging war, I do not include responding to attack on oneself or one of one's allies (by treaty)).

Given your changing views on a number of subjects since when you were a teenager, I am curious to know where you stand on the issue of war (and in particular the issue of 'liberal intervention').

Ann Kittenplan said...

Perhaps the arguments, sentiments even, against capital punishment are well summarised in the recent tweet that has been doing the rounds:
Ragnhild Holmas
G.W. Bush, 9/11: "We're gonna hunt you down." Stoltenberg, 22/7: "We will retaliate with more democracy". I'm proud to be Norwegian.

Benulek said...

"There are the "libertarians" who do not accept that the State has the legitimacy or competence to administer taxes or provide the police with powers but then contend that the State can rightly and safely take lives."

Which deals neatly with the faux-libertarian in question. My objection to capital punishment is simple: I assert that the state has no right to make me as a taxpayer indirectly complicit in a process intended to culminate in the killing of a specific individual. I'm surprised that this argument doesn't appeal to Paul Staines, given how contemptuous he usually is of any attempt by the state to arrogate to itself any authority to do anything.

Maria Wolters said...

There should be plenty of hard data (hopefully, she says) from the US showing the many ways in which the death penalty does not work. I'm trying to crowdsource some here, not having the relevant social sciences background:

For those who are wondering how to deal with an unspeakable crime where the murderer has been found guilty without a doubt, I have one word for you: Norway.

The King of Wrong said...

the most significant practical argument against capital punishment is that it is irreversible

So is any punishment.

You can't un-punish someone. You can't un-beat them. You can't make it so they didn't spend time in jail. They can't un-drop the soap.

The argument that capital punishment is bad because it can't be reversed is an argument that it's OK to punish the innocent, that it's fine to lock someone up for decades, because if you're wrong you can stop punishing them.

I don't hold with that.

SteelMagnolia said...

Hello David,

I question a blogger who has an impressive amount of followers and also respected by many, I include myself in that group to choose NOW to raise such a hot topic. To me it is as though he wishes to move on from Hackgate or at least divert interest when the investigation moves on to more murkier ground involving Ian hurst / Martin Ingram / Stakeknife. I also have a feeling very soon we will be hearing the name Jonathon Rees

As for the death penalty, until we can clean England of the corruption that has been exposed by Murdochs toxic power, what right has anyone to judge a criminal when those in power seem to be just that themselves, criminals of the highest order.

Anonymous said...

I remain ambivalent on the subject. But there are several arguments against the death penalty which need to be examined, if not actually challenged.
Deterence. Deterence should form part of any sentence for a criminal offence. The fact that there is scarce evidence one way or the other on the deterrent effect of the death sentence makes the whole argument emotional rather than rational.

The State's moral authority. If the state has no moral right to sanction the death penalty (I'm paraphrasing here) equally it cannot morally sanction the use of lethal force by going to war, or by condoning extra-judicial killing as in the case of Jean Charles de Menezes. How can it be justifiable to kill one person in order to prevent death or injury to others?

Proetction of society from repeat offenders. I have no statistics on this but it is fair to say that it has been known that a person may commit murder a second time having been released after the first sentence. Whilst this is certainly no argument for the death penalty it is an argument for better custodial policy and less liberal mindedness where serious offenders have been identified. While we may think of ourselves as civilised, one wonders why we destroy dangerous dogs after one 'offence' yet assume all our fellow humans are redeemable!

Jack said...

If we have a person who has been sentenced to death, then they are presumably at our mercy. Killing them now will not bring anyone back, it won't save us any money (although the financial argument is trite) and if they are jailed for life they will not go out and hurt again. Why, then, do it? Ultimately is because it will make those who advocate capital punishment feel better.

Read that again. These people want to kill others to feel good. If you defend capital punishment then I will usually assume you are unaware of the arguments against it. Otherwise I would have to accept that you want to kill someone to make yourself feel better.

That's not cool, man.

Elizabeth said...

I thought Guido was fine taking on Piers Moron (I can't remember his real name because I read Private Eye too much) but this thing about Bring Back Hanging -- it's ridiculous. Will lose him a lot of readers.

BobRocket said...

I don't agree with capital punishment because I believe it will lead to more juries finding a defendant 'not guilty' simply because they do not want to be the person to send another person to die.

morungos said...

I'm amazed that the blogger concerned raised the Baby P case as the basis for his petition, saying

100,000 voters sign the petition we have a chance of getting real justice for the next Baby P (from:

Although this seems a clear cut case, there are similar ones where serious miscarriages of justice have been a significant problem. In Ontario, a leading pathologist (Charles Smith) gave authoritative but totally wrong testimony, leading to numerous convictions for murder of children which were later overturned, as much as 15 years later. A public inquiry is looking into 220 cases based on his evidence.

It seems likely that one or more of these would have led to the death penalty, if it had been available and on the basis desired by this particular blogger.

Now, imagine if you were the parent of a child that had died in these unfortunate but accidental circumstances, and were on the receiving end of this testimony. You could be killed for it.

Who gains from this? Everyone involved is contaminated by the debasement of humanity that arises from the death penalty. It's not justice, it's burying the problem -- literally.

Ewan said...

I should probably start by saying that I agree with the conclusion; the death penalty is a bad idea, but I'm not sure that these arguments against it are as watertight as you seem to think:

"For example, capital punishment is not actually cheaper, as the costs of the inevitable appeals and re-appeals mean that it is rather an expensive process."

The US certainly has many layers and years of drawn out appeals, but many of the seem to be redundant; essentially just repeat rounds or the condemned saying that he doesn't want to die, and the state saying it does want him to. Since nothing has usually changed since the sentence was originally imposed, it stands. It is certainly possible to conceive of a death penalty system with no more appeals than are currently allowed for life imprisonment cases. Further, I rather suspect that the system envisioned my those advocating the return of the death penalty would not include multiple US style appeals, and if that were the case, then this simply wouldn't be an argument against what they're advocating, but an argument against something similar, but different.

"Of course, the most significant practical argument against capital punishment is that it is irreversible. Any mistake cannot be rectified."

That is equally true of imprisonment. Letting someone out doesn't reverse the effects of locking them up in the first place (indeed, if it did it would make it rather pointless to lock criminals up at all); if someone is wrongly imprisoned they have lost a chunk of their life that they can quite literally never get back. Once someone sentenced to death is dead it's all over for them - there's no ongoing unpleasantness. There's clearly a question over which is actually a worse thing to do to someone - if you consider the total suffering imposed by a quick drug induced death, or looking forward to living the whole of the rest of one's life incarcerated, it's not clear that death is worse. Indeed, given a straight choice between the two, I'm pretty sure I know what I'd prefer for myself.

"Even on its own terms, taking a life as a "deterrent" is manifestly unjust: it means that the punishment is not on the basis of the facts of its own case, but on the basis of speculation about incidents which may never exist."

That may be true, but applies equally to other sentences issued for deterrent effect, which they are, routinely.

"But killing people, like torturing people, is wrong; and is still wrong when it is arranged and done by officials on our behalf. Two wrongs make two wrongs."

Again, this applies equally to any other sentence. Locking people up, taking away their money, or forcing them to work for nothing, are all wrong, and indeed, would all be illegal if done by a private individual. That doesn't stop the state imposing sentences of imprisonment, fines, or unpaid work. The principle that, after due process, the state may do something unpleasant to someone that would otherwise be quite wrong, is deeply woven in to the system as it stands now.

The King of Wrong said...

Jack (15:48) said:
These people want to kill others to feel good.

You're projecting. While I appreciate that it's nice to demonise those who disagree with you and to imagine that they have some sort of heinous mental deficiency, the truth is far simpler.

Actions have consequences.

For a huge number of people, the consequence of murder (and similarly serious crimes) is that you forfeit your right to continued existence.

Jack said...

The King of Wrong: What takes you from 'Actions have consequences' to 'The consequence of A committing murder is A's life being taken'?

That's the point I'm driving at. There is no (justifiable) reasoning behind it and, when all the arguments are exhausted, it falls down to simply wanting to feel better that the big, bad (or, more probably, 'evil') murderer has been killed and now we can all celebrate.

Jack said...

The King of Wrong: I will clarify what I was trying to say. I wasn't projecting for my own convenience. Someone jumping from 'Actions have consequences' to 'Murderers should be killed' are unjustified (once the debate has progressed). Often they will concede that their arguments from an instrumental angle (deterrent, financial, etc.) fail.

This is when the debate tends to lead to intrinsic angles. The idea that it is 'just' or other such metaphysically contentious things tends to, when fleshed out, result in that they should be given the death penalty because everyone will feel a bit better about the event.

Tom (iow) said...

But currently, death is not a consequence of any offence. It would only become a consequence if people decided they want it to be, so David's connection is unavoidable.

Kih-Oskh said...

A couple of comments have referred to the fact that you can't 'undo' a custodial sentence, and that this seems to invalidate the 'irreversible' argument against capital punishment. For example, Ewan states:

"There's clearly a question over which is actually a worse thing to do to someone - if you consider the total suffering imposed by a quick drug induced death, or looking forward to living the whole of the rest of one's life incarcerated, it's not clear that death is worse. Indeed, given a straight choice between the two, I'm pretty sure I know what I'd prefer for myself."

This seems to miss the crucial point that if you, the defendant, *know* that you are innocent, a custodial sentence gives you, your supporters and your legal team, time to continue protesting your innocence - hopefully to achieve a pardon. The 'irreversible' argument is inextricably linked with the potential for miscarriage of justice and the fallibility of the justice system, and should be viewed in that context.

I cannot imagine a situation where, after being imprisoned for a crime I didn't commit, I wouldn't devote the rest of my days to proving my innocence. Something I would be unable to do from beyond the grave.

Alistair Sloan said...

"But if 'life' can actually mean only seven years safely off the streets, then something more is wanted by the populace." (Paul at 14:06)

Part of the problem Paul is that the populace don't really understand the life sentence system at all, partly down (in my view) to the way such sentences are reported and a lack of desire to find out what is actually true. I recently wrote about the life sentence to try and deal with some of the misconceptions (full article can be read at In preparing that article I contacted HM Prison Service to get some figures and they informed me that as at 27 November 2010 (the last date figures were held at the time of the FOI request) there were 7,656 life sentence prisoners in custody in England and Wales, of those some 2,874 had passed their “tariff” (the number of years that must be served before the prisoner can apply for parole). In other words these people had served that part of their sentence, but were considered by the Parole Board to be too dangerous to the public to be released.

Pink Politika said...

I can remember (as a child) when the UK still had the death penalty. Even at my young age, I felt sick every time this penalty was announced on the news. Never, ever is it justified.

Did you know that it seems most UK judicial executioners apparently ended up taking their own lives? What might that tell us, I wonder?

And of course what applies to the fate of state executioners here often, tragically, applies also to, e.g., the children of people who are executed. They also I believe tend to kill themselves, often many years later, after decades of state-inflicted torment.

The death penalty is an abhorence. It's also a direct crime against other, innocent, people.

I have given thanks many, many times over the past decades, as I hear of state-inflicted attrocities elsewhere, that I do not live in a place where others may legally impose premediated, targeted extermination.

It is one of the greatest achievements of a Europe united in a sense of human decency, that Europeans are not judicially killed by the hand of their fellow citizens.

NO. NO. NO. The very idea is barbaric. NO.

Andy said...

The whole argument of the "harsher the sentance the less crime" is pretty much rubbish. The single biggest thing that brings down crime is to create a more income equal society.

Increased sentences and the death penalty don't appear to reduce crime (well not many people expect to get caught do they).

Whilst I agree there should be a degree of punishment there should be a much greater emphasis within our justice system for rehabilitation so these people can get out and actually contribute.

The other thing to consider is the crime committed on the inside of prisons. Give someone nothing to live for and they become dangerous (and expensive) to look after.

David Carradice said...

Surely just one wrong committal is enough to say that the death penalty is wrong.
If a Life sentence meant a more substantial imprisoned period behind bars, rather than the cursory internment we appear to see today, wouldn't this be justice served? I'm not saying we should make life easy for the crime. Taking away someone's liberty and the good things in life can be redressed in those cases in error. Taking away someone's life cannot.

Yvonne Johnston (@Whyjay99) said...

There is said to be a majority in favour of capital punishment. We need to ask that majority, 'would you personally be prepared to inject the lethal shot; turn on the switch or place the rope around another person's neck and then remove the floor on which they stand?' If their answer is 'no' then they cannot, in all that is fair, expect someone else to do it on behalf of them or the state.
I suspect that might shrink that majority considerably.

redwinter101 said...

Great, thoughtful article and comments. I apologise for reiterating some points already made.

On the deterrence issue, I've never seen any evidence to support the theory that a crime was averted because the criminal knew the offence carried a capital punishment, nor that those who have committed capital crimes (in countries where the death penalty exists) were ignorant of the consequences if they were caught and found guilty.

On retribution, for me there's a wider issue about the purpose of punishment. Is it for the specific victims, for the benefit of wider society, for future protection of the public or should there always be a presumption of some element of rehabilitation? I can remember the person I was 20 years ago. Although I never committed a crime I was a completely different person from the person I am now. Life and experience change us all (thank God) and I cannot get past the notion of capital punishment as the ultimate acceptance that you will never be more than you were at the point you committed that terrible crime.

While I understand the financial arguments, for me, that's a non-issue. This is life or death and cost doesn't come into it.

I echo the thoughts of the commenter who said they didn't want any part of a state that would kill a fellow citizen. And I think there is more than sufficient evidence that innocent people have been (and continue to be) executed.

Finally, I love living in a country that says no, this is not who we are and not what we do. Capital punishment is the ultimate admission of failure by any state - it's saying "We failed; we can do no more" and I don't believe that. It is one of my (few) points of pride that our legislature holds to this principle, even though all polls suggest a majority in the country support a reinstatement of capital punishment.

(Re the eager "I'll pull the lever" brigade, I have two words: Nicholas Winterton.)

I have held these views (dearly) for many years). I hope that if I lose a friend or family member to a "capital" crime, I would have the strength to continue to hold them, because I do know it's always easier when you've got no skin in the game.

AndyJ said...

@Yvonne Johnston.
With the greatest respect that argument is nonsense. If extended to other areas of life where we expect our government to provide for us, we would need the majority to agree to act as parking wardens, front line soldiers, sewage workers and a host of other jobs which we as a society require to be done, but on our behalf rather than by us personally. Could you kill a sweet little kitten? Should vets therefore be made illegal beccause they daily have to put down animals who are suffering and cannot be treated? Or could you kill and butcher a cow? So should abattoirs be closed and the 'majority' have to stop eating meat based on the same argument?

Jon D said...

Lets say we reintroduced capital punishment. From a pragmatic perspective, what would happen? Well, it would run counter to protocol 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. We would almost certainly have to leave the Council of Europe, not to mention the EU. That jeopardizes $220bn-odd worth of British exports into fellow EU member states, almost all of which would have to be renegotiated.

Want to do bring in harsher sentencing; fine. I for one support locking up people for long stretches. Increase sentences, scale back discounts for early guilty pleas and make all mitigation (and aggravation) subject to a finding of fact. Ok, it would massively increase the prison population, but perhaps that’s a good thing. It would throw a bone to the tabloid reading masses, and a scheme of mass prison building could form part of a Keynesian stimulus to get the economy back on track!

Jon D said...

@Andy J
To paraphrase the Game of Thrones.
"If you would take a man's life you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die... A ruler who hides behind paid executioners soon forgets what death is."

On the point about vets, I confess I once put a creature out of its misery with my own hands. A soulful moment.

Richard said...

The Sun yesterday led with a front-page splash supporting Paul Staines' campaign, with grainy black and white photographs of the last two men to be hanged in Britain in August 1964. The caption under the pictures read "Final hangings ...Allen and Evans".

The Evans in question was Gwynne Owen Evans, but older readers may have been prompted to remember Timothy Evans who was wrongly convicted and hanged for another murder.

Of course, The Sun wasn't about to remind its readers that innocent men and women were hanged in Britain when we had the death penalty. Or that there have been scores of miscarriages of justice since 1964 which would have led to many more executions of innocent people.

Equally predictable were the stupid Tory MPs who are apparently backing the Staines campaign. One of them, Philip Davies, said he would like to go further and restore the death penalty for ALL murders.

For those of us who thought that the debate on capital punishment was finished with years ago, here is a powerful reminder that populist charlatans and idiot MPs are always with us.

The King of Wrong said...

What takes you from 'Actions have consequences' to 'The consequence of A committing murder is A's life being taken'?

Any of a number of ethical systems.

There are Utilitarian arguments of cost, of minimising pain across society, of the greater good.
There are Deontological arguments - probably the most popular being Divine Command, we have a duty to execute murderers.
There are Teleological arguments - if the end of A no longer existing is a good thing, then so must be the means.

None of which you'll accept, because you've already made up your mind against capital punishment.

There is no (justifiable) reasoning behind it

There is no justifiable reasoning against it, either. In the end, it all comes down to whether a murderer is the same as an innocent person, and no amount of logic or rhetoric can provide the answer there.

So now we're in a pit of moral relativism wrestling over whose gut instinct is right.

AndyJ said...

@ Jon D.
Thank you for the paraphrased quotation. Regretably a quotation (ie another person's opinion) however lyrical is hardly a counter argument. I maintain my point that the conjecture that many if not most people who would like to bring back the death penalty could not actually perform an execution is not a cogent reason against bringing it back.

Libelittle said...

I think most of what I think has already been said, so I won't reiterate beyond this: excellent post, thank you.

Two minor points which haven't been dealt with:
1) We can look at the deterrence argument in the context of populist legislation and attitudes which would see an expansion in the use of capital punishment, were it to be reinstated. The eventual end-point of this course of action is the historical use of the death penalty in the 18th Century. Not that I believe things would ever reach that stage - but why even take one step down that road?
2) Bruce - you say you would vote for capital punishment not because you want it, but because you think it would result in harsher sentences being imposed as an alternative. While that could happen, 'tactical voting' in this context seems a very dangerous abuse of democratic process. There are other channels for you to pursue your actual aims, and the idea of publicly showing your (pretence of) support for capital punishment - let alone potentially participating in re-establishing it - just to make a point seems utterly repugnant at worst, and wildly irresponsible at best. I would counsel you first to read the posts above concerning the true nature of life sentences and the actual effect of harsher sentences, and then to write to your MP if you still take issue.

CrescentMan said...

My belief is that if as a society we argue that the taking of life is morally wrong then allowing capital punishment places us in the same moral category as the murderer. By rejecting capital punishment we are placing ourselves on a morally higher plane.

BUT of course this is undermined by the legitimised murder our armed forces are expected to perform. I would like to see us reject state violence too.

The Custody Sgt said...

The justice system is not infallible and as such the death penalty has to be wrong.

Garrow's Law gives a good indication of mob rule and how a court room can be filled with discreditable witnesses and compurgators leading to conviction and death of innocent people.

Sometimes general society, when emotions ate running high, needs protecting from itself. We are as a society supposed to be moving forward. Not backward.

Gramont said...

One of the most common arguments for capital punishment is that is claimed to be a deterrent. I believe I'm right in saying that research has generally disproved this argument or, at least, not found there to be a significant increase in murder since capital punishment was abolished.

Pigasus said...

Pardon my trampling through here. Much of this has been said before and my points will wander off your main topic.

1) Strapping a person to a table and killing them is barbaric. To say that a society has no other solution to their problems is to say that society has failed.

2) The death penalty is not a deterrent. The US has jurisdictions with and without the death penalty. The violent crime numbers are the same.

3) As you said, it is irreversible. In the US, we know we have killed innocent people in our execution chambers. It's an unacceptable risk for a freedom loving society to accept.

4) It amazes me that there are electorates naive enough to empower their governments to kill them.

5) In the US jurors can be pre-screened to be willing to apply the death penalty. Would you want to be an innocent man standing in front of such a jury?

6) In my experience, any sufficiently lengthy conversation with a death penalty proponent will eventually involve religion. Those that believe in an afterlife are less concerned about the death penalty. A repentant bad guy could go to heaven. Your religious beliefs are exactly that, your religious beliefs. Applying these beliefs as part of a judicial process is wrong.