The attempted restarting of the capital punishment debate by Congleton’s UKIP Louise Bours — she said there was “no ethical reason” to prevent child killers, the murderers of police officers and the killers of Lee Rigby being executed — does her and her Party no good.
Aside from any questions that the comments were made for political or self-promotional purposes, they show UKIP to be what critics claim it is, a party rooted in 1950s Britain, appealing to the lowest common denominator and with ill thought-out policies.
The lone argument for the death penalty is an Old Testament concept of revenge. At the end of the day, in 2014 we should have moved beyond the medieval concept of an eye for an eye.
Anyway, which is the best revenge: to kill someone and remove them from all guilt or keep them alive and in prison for decades? Ian Brady’s recent court appeals are based on his wish to die. The punishment is keeping him alive.
The death penalty is arguably not part of a fair legal system but a stick used by the powerful to keep the weak in fear, whether it’s the English Act of Parliament in 1723 that created 50 capital offences for theft and poaching, or the lynching of blacks in America.
The latter is a good place to start when being critical of killing in the name of revenge: the famous song Strange Fruit was inspired by the lynching of two innocent men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, in Marion, Indiana. The men were falsely accused of rape and murder and lynched by a mob intent on revenge.
When Smith tried to free himself from the noose, the crowd lowered him, broke both his arms and strung him up again to die. That’s revenge for you: barbaric and bloodthirsty. It’s not justice.
The concept of revenge is one our legal system has gone beyond. We spent decades moving away from killing citizens, though it’s true that politicians and lawmakers have done so in the face of public opinion — today, 45% of the public are in favour of capital punishment with 39% against.
Revenge aside, execution does not work. It does not prevent crime. In Texas, the keenest of all US states on killing its citizens, there were 1,144 murders in 2012. The population of Texas is about half that of England and Wales and we had 551 murders in 2012: that’s double the population and half the murders, despite Texas having the death penalty.
Supporters of the death penalty work in the belief that convictions are always correct, something with which Timothy Evans, hanged in 1950 for a murder committed by John Christie, or Derek Bentley, hung in 1953 for murdering a policeman and pardoned in 1998, would disagree. A number of Irishmen could have been hung for offences for which they were later cleared.
What people who support the death penalty fail to take account is that it’s the price we pay for having a fair legal system. The killers of Lee Rigby are the exceptions that show why the rules should be not changed: everyone has to be treated equally and fairly. If a pair of callous murderers appear to make a mockery of fairness, that’s the proof that, for all other cases, a system of checks and balances is built in.
Singling out killers such as Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale for special consideration falls into the trap of valuing some lives above others. What’s the difference between someone who sets out with a knife to injure someone or someone who leaves the pub then drives over the limit and causes a fatal accident? Both know they are about to commit actions that could cause harm, and their victims’ lives are of equal value.
Mr Rigby’s killing was atrocious but from a factual basis, little different to the recent killing in Macclesfield of Zain Sailsman — both were killed in the street by people who had set out to cause serious harm. Mr Rigby was an innocent man killed without provocation, and this was reflected in sentencing, with Adebolajo given a whole life order and Adebowale ordered to serve at least 45 years. In Congleton, Ricky Jervis was sentenced to a minimum of 27 years. Would UKIP advocate that Jervis was executed?
Calls for the reintroduction of the death penalty ignore the fact that the world has changed since the 1950s. Not least because, despite opinion polls, there’s a boycott by the companies supplying the drugs that kill the condemned.
This has led to a fall in executions in the US. California, Arkansas and North Carolina have suspended the death penalty because of a failure to find a workable lethal injection. Other states are trying to develop their own drugs: in April this year, Oklahoma tried out an untested mixture of drugs, which led to a condemned man surviving for 43 minutes before being pronounced dead; he convulsed and spoke during the execution process. He attempted to rise from the execution table 14 minutes in, despite having been declared unconscious.
It could be assumed that, should we re-introduce the death penalty, the drugs manufacturers would be equally unwilling to supply the drugs, so we’d have to pick another method.
Texas is the top executor in the US but it abolished hanging in 1924, the firing squad in the Civil War and electrocution in 1964. (Eighteen US states have abolished the death penalty altogether). Which method would UKIP favour?
Finally, the reintroduction of the death penalty would be a serious blow to the standing of England in the eyes of the world. No longer could we take the moral high ground when lecturing countries on their inattention to human rights.
Is this what UKIP wants? Botched executions of innocent people and Britain becoming a pariah of the world stage?