Right now I think that I, like many of my countrymen, could happily pull the lever on the man responsible for murdering those two policewomen yesterday. But this is a kneejerk reaction; based on my outrage at the callousness of this particular crime. Old Norm Tebbit has given a similar, if slower, jerk of the knee in demanding the reinstatement of capital punishment for the murder of police officers. This old chestnut is wheeled out after every child murder, police killing and terrorist atrocity, but the reality is that capital punishment is not the great deterrent it is made out to be by those who support its reinstatement.
In the years following the Second World War, guns were widely available on the streets of Britain, many having been brought home as souvenirs by those in combat. This availability of weapons came in an era of Hollywood films that glamourised gangsters, and so we saw a rise in the ‘hoodlum’ type stick -up, as carried out by Dirk Bogarde in the film The Blue Lamp.
In 1947, Christopher Geraghty and Charles Jenkins were hanged for their part in a bungled hold-up, in which a passer-by who attempted to stop the gang was shot dead for his trouble. The execution of this pair did nothing to deter Christopher Craig who, in 1952, went out burgling, armed with a loaded revolver. Having been disturbed while trying to gain access to a warehouse via the roof, Craig entered into a shoot-out with police, during which the unfortunate PC Miles was shot dead. At sixteen-years-old, Craig was too young to be hanged. Undeterred, and seeking their pound of flesh, however, the authorities decided to hang Craig’s accomplice, nineteen-year-old Derek Bentley, although he had been arrested some fifteen minutes before the murder took place.
On sentencing Bentley, the judge said that the execution was ‘to encourage the others’. When this sentence was carried out, a young, and quite possibly hirsute, Norman Tebbit was 22 years-old. If it was during this ‘golden age’ of executions in England and Wales that he formed the opinion that capital punishment acts as a deterrent, then this might go some way towards explaining his latest call for the reinstatement of a practice that has been proven not to work; he clearly pays no attention to facts
Here are the numbers of people executed in England and Wales during the ten years following the end of World War 2:
As you can see, there is no deterrent factor whatsoever in these figures. On four occasions the number of executions was up on the previous year. The eight people hanged in 1948 did not deter those 16 who were executed the following year. The fourteen state executions in 1951 did nothing to deter the 23 who lined up for a hemp collar the following year. So the deterrent value of capital punishment has been proven to be non-existent.
But there is more to capital punishment than being to deter others. Many people support its reinstallation on the grounds of justice/retribution/revenge. Obviously this topic has been widely discussed today, because of the terrible events of yesterday and already I have heard two people offer the view that capital punishment is fine in cases where we are 100% certain that the person to be hanged (or whatever) is guilty. This is easier said than done.
When Timothy Evans went to the gallows in 1950, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was responsible for the murder of his wife and baby. There was no outcry; no petition for a reprieve, and no great crowd outside the prison gates on the morning he was hanged. He was seen as a low, violent, lying drunkard who had killed the two people closest to him. He is now enjoying the luxury of a posthumous pardon (as is the aforementioned Derek Bentley). These facts make it highly unlikely that I will see the reintroduction of the death penalty in my lifetime, despite the clamourings from old Norm and his cohorts.
But apart from the perpetrator, an execution affects other people who are involved in the process. There are those on the jury who must live with the knowledge that they sent a man to his death. There are the warders who are encouraged to befriend condemned prisoners, only to see them taken off to be killed.
There was a programme on TV once about the last hanging in Britain. A warder who was on condemned cell duty for that execution was interviewed and, on reliving the procedure, this burly man was reduced to tears while recalling an event that had taken place some thirty years earlier. This is the emotional impact of deliberately taking a life, and it offers a valid deterrent to reinstating capital punishment. Do we really want to put innocent people through the trauma of being involved in the deliberate killing of another human being?
In cases like the shooting of those policewomen yesterday, the general consensus might be a thumbs-up, but capital punishment is not administered according to the level of outrage generated by the perpetrator of the crime. Not everyone who ends up on trial for murder is a cold-blooded killer (nor are they always guilty). There would be occasions when the public would feel a great deal of sympathy for the condemned prisoner – but nothing would be able to stop the process of execution.
Back in the days of hanging, there were many occasions when a jury returned a guilty verdict with a reccommendation to mercy. More often than not, these reccommendations were ignored and the executions went ahead. In the current culture of compensation, I imagine the re would be claims for emotional trauma from some of those involved in sending someone to his or her death. Would that really be the stamp of a civilised country in the 21st century?