By indexer
2 years ago

Capital punishment in the United Kingdom

Half a century has passed since the last execution was carried out in the United Kingdom. Although there have been calls for its return, this seems unlikely in the near future. This writer hopes that it will never do so.

There was a time when executions were regularly carried out in Great Britain. In historical times there were many notable cases of execution by beheading and burning at the stake, but these were usually of prominent people who had committed treason or some other offence that displeased the monarch of the day. Common criminals were more likely to be hanged from a tree.

The rise of the middle class in the 18th century led to a surge in offences being designated as capital (i.e. subject to the death penalty), mainly as a result of propertied people sponsoring legislation designed to protect their property against theft by the starving underclass.

At one time there were more than 200 offences for which death was an available penalty, including “being in the company of gypsies”. Some judges were more inclined to impose the penalty than others and to take little account of the circumstances of individual cases – even young children could be hanged for stealing a loaf of bread.

Humanitarian reforms, over a long period of time, gradually reduced the list of capital offences until, by the mid-20th century, these only included certain types of murder, treason, and sabotage in a Naval dockyard – although cases of the latter two were, not surprisingly, extremely rare.

The method used for carrying out executions was also reformed, such that public executions (always by hanging) that had become a grisly form of entertainment gave way to a much more clinical process within the confines of a prison.

Moves towards total abolition

The public mood towards abolishing the death penalty altogether was hastened by several cases in which it was widely believed that justice had not been served. One of these was the hanging of Timothy Evans in 1950 for the murder of his infant daughter, although it later became clear that he was entirely innocent and that he had been framed by the real murderer, the serial killer John Christie.

Another case that shook public confidence in the death penalty was that in 1953 of Derek Bentley, who was involved in a robbery during which a policeman was shot dead. It was always clear that Bentley had not been the actual murderer (who was aged 16 and therefore could not be hanged) but he was condemned to death by virtue of having been part of the “joint enterprise” that led to the policeman’s death.

The hanging of Ruth Ellis in 1955, for the murder of her former lover, also sparked huge public revulsion for the death penalty and led to no more being handed down for nearly ten years. The final executions were carried out in August 1964 when two men were hanged in Strangeways Prison, Manchester, for a murder that had taken place earlier that year.

The abolition of capital punishment

This was achieved in 1965 by an Act of Parliament that suspended the penalty for a trial period of five years, although it was only four later, in December 1969, that abolition was made permanent.

Since that date there have been votes in the House of Commons on motions to restore the death penalty for certain crimes, with MPs being free to vote according to their consciences and not along party lines. However, despite the fact that a majority of the British public would apparently support a return, there have always been large majorities against it in Parliament.

It is now a condition of membership of the European Union that no country can retain the death penalty, so there was no chance of the decision being reversed as long as the United Kingdom remained a member.

Should capital punishment return?

With the United Kingdom about to leave the European Union, moves to restore the death penalty are quite likely to be made. There would appear to be strong public support for certain offences to carry the penalty, including the murders of policemen, prison officers and members of the armed forces, as well as acts of terrorism.

However, this writer would not be in favour of such a move. For one thing, I take the view that when a country takes the lives of its own citizens, for whatever reason, it has forfeited the right to call itself a civilised nation.

Another reason is that repealing capital punishment has not resulted in a huge rise in the number of murder cases, as was originally feared. The number of occasions on which a murderer has stopped to think about the potential punishment should they be caught is vanishingly small – they either bank on not being caught or are so involved in the event as it unfolds that thinking of the consequences never enters their heads.

Knowing that their decision could result in the death of someone might incline some jury members to come to a “not guilty” verdict in a murder trial, with the result that someone who is actually guilty is released from any punishment at all and may even go on to kill someone else.

Finally, the reason that led to capital punishment being abolished in the first place has not gone away, namely the possibility that miscarriages of justice can occur. There are far too many instances in which evidence is tainted or trials are poorly conducted for one to be absolutely certain that the right verdict is reached in every case. A wrong can be righted if the person in question is in jail, but not if they have already been hanged.

I am delighted that that there is no death penalty in the United Kingdom, and I sincerely hope that things stay that way.
2 years
Explorer2017 We have various capital punishments in our country. First was strangulation, then firing squad, followed by electric chair and lethal injection. They're all abolished for they didn't serve the purpose. Now, there are people who want to return the death penalty for heinous crimes.
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soncee Very interesting
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indexer @Explorer2017 There will always be advocates for both sides in this debate - I know which side of the fence I am on!
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