Half a century ago, Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans were hanged for the murder of John West. Nobody knew it at the time, but they were to be the last people to be executed in the UK. The 50th anniversary of this watershed moment gives us a chance to remember why we are better off without the death penalty, and why British efforts to promote the worldwide abolition of capital punishment should be supported.
Calls to reinstate the death penalty in the UK are usually made in the aftermath of horrific crimes, like those of Harold Shipman, Fred and Rosemary West, and more recently Michael Adebolajo for murdering soldier Lee Rigby. A principled argument against capital punishment in these cases is that we should not reduce ourselves to doing the very thing we condemn. Namely, killing somebody in a cold, dispassionate and calculated manner.
History supports abolition
Capital punishment is a barbaric, violent and ineffective way of dealing with crime. But even if we believe in the appropriateness of the death penalty, we need only look to history to realise that the costs far outweigh any perceived benefits.
A string of manifestly unjust hangings in the 1950s paved the way towards abolition, even though the majority of the British public supported capital punishment. Timothy Evans was hanged in 1950 for murdering his baby daughter, only for the real killer to confess in 1953. This was the same year Derek Bentley was executed for the killing of a policeman even though he did not pull the trigger.
Public unease with these executions was compounded by the hanging of Ruth Ellis in 1955. Ellis’ guilt was beyond doubt – she had clearly killed her boyfriend – but the physical and emotional abuse that she had suffered at his hands led many to believe that she did not deserve the death penalty.
It is telling, then, that even though the last men to be hanged were as unequivocally guilty as the likes of Shipman, the Wests, and Adebolajo, this did not stop parliament from suspending the death penalty in 1965, permanently outlawing it for most offences in 1969, and finally abolishing it in all circumstances in 1998. So, when the urge to execute is strong, we should look to our history and recall that we can live without capital punishment.
Society is no less safe, and justice is still served, but without the added risk of executing an innocent person. If we had the death penalty, we would surely have the innocent blood of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four on our hands. After all, miscarriages of justice still occur – Barry George and Sam Hallam can testify to that. Fortunately, the 13th Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights prohibits its signatories (which includes the UK) from reinstating capital punishment.
Ending the death penalty abroad
Britain has also taken a leading role in encouraging other states to end capital punishment, with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office issuing a detailed strategy for promoting the abolition of the death penalty elsewhere. British charities such as Reprieve and Amicus have provided invaluable legal assistance to people facing the death penalty, and have played a vital role in ensuring that the UK is not inadvertently complicit in executions elsewhere.
For all its admirable efforts in this field, the UK still has a long way to go. Britons still face the death penalty in other countries, such as Lindsay Sandiford in Indonesia, and Andargachew Tsege in Ethiopia.
Investigations have also revealed that the UK government provides financial and technical aid to countries like Iran and Pakistan to help with their anti-drug trafficking efforts. This is aid that ultimately assists these states with the execution of drug traffickers. And, despite Britain’s efforts to promote abolition worldwide, 100 countries still have capital punishment on the books, even if not all of them use it regularly.
The end of the global death penalty might be a long way off, but the centuries-old roots of capital punishment are withering away. More and more countries are turning their backs on capital punishment. Even China — the world leader in executions — has recently committed itself to reducing its use of the ultimate punishment. In 1964, only 20 countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes, but this figure now stands at 98.
On the 50th anniversary of the last execution held in Britain, it is important to press on with the goal of promoting abolition, and ridding our world of this mockery of justice.