Last week, right-wing political blogger Guido Fawkes posted a link to a petition on the Government's new e-petition facility calling for the reinstatement of capital punishment in Britain for cop and child killers.
The statement of the petition reads:
We petition the government to review all treaties and international commitments which may inhibit the ability of Parliament to restore capital punishment. Following this review, the Ministry of Justice should map out the necessary legislative steps which will be required to restore the death penalty for the murder of children and police officers when killed in the line of duty.
The findings of the review and the necessary substantive legislation to be presented to House of Commons for debate no later than 12 months after this petition passes the acceptance threshold.
One can only surmise that Guido Fawkes, aka Paul Staines, is cynically capitalising on the recent events in Norway - much in the same way that certain tabloids have in the wake of some of Britain's most horrific crimes, in order to push his agenda. "But it's the will of the people!" he cries, stating that "All polls show that there is majority support for capital punishment, yet there is no majority for it in parliament." That may very well be, but I have found that more often than not the 'will of the people' - in terms of capital punishment - is based on an erroneous notion of the practical application of a death penalty.
- Note: I am not addressing moral issues here, although there are myriad more in opposition than in favour in my opinion, as they are more subjective and therefore debatable.
Guido Fawkes is not the single 'voice of reason' in the hubbub of the loony-left media that he would have you believe. Recently, Conservative MEP, Roger Helmer, posted on his blog a call for the return of capital punishment (to which I wrote this response). In it he used nearly every 'common sense' cliché and pejorative sneer to ridicule those who oppose it as 'Guardian readers' (yawn) and disciples of Polly Toynbee. Does there always have to be this trite notion that supporting progression, rather than banging your head against the same punitive brick wall, is indicative of being a lentil-munching, reality boycotter? If any group is being quixotic and ignoring the facts, it is those in favour of restoring capital punishment, not those who oppose it. Capital punishment is not the answer to a rising murder rate, crime is born of a plethora of socio-economic and cultural variables that cannot be solved with any one quick fix. Least of all the putting to death of one, two or even a hundred murderers.
The mantra of the 'bring back hanging brigade' is "But only if you definitely know they're guilty". I was under the impression that someone had to be 'definitely guilty' to be convicted of shoplifting or speeding, let alone aggravated murder. There is no 'definitely guilty', which is why guilt is determined 'beyond a reasonable doubt', what about unreasonable circumstances or anomalous conditions? "But what about DNA evidence?" people then say. DNA evidence was never intended to be a magic bullet to determine guilt or innocence; but merely a way to determine certain chronological, geographical, and physical aspects of a crime. It is also not infallible, nor is eyewitness testimony or expert witnesses. Barry George was supposedly 'definitely guilty' of the murder of Jill Dando and was convicted on the basis of forensic evidence, which it then transpired was faulty. 'Luckily' he only spent eight years in prison, rather than being given an impotent posthumous pardon, a la Timothy Evans. DNA and forensic evidence has been around for over 25 years in Britain, yet people are still being discovered as having been wrongfully convicted. Riddle me that, Batman.
Another reason cited by those in favour of capital punishment, is that it would be cheaper than a life sentence (although often with the caveat, "I don't for a moment suggest that anyone should be hanged just to save money" - Roger Helmer, MEP). This is also incorrect. While Mr Helmer suggests that Britain would somehow avoid the lengthy appeals process that "disfigure American justice in capital cases", he fails to offer any solution for this. Currently, appeals against sentences in Britain are already protracted and painstaking affairs. If Mr Helmer is suggesting foregoing due process and expediting executions in an effort to increase the deterrent effect of the death penalty, or simply to save money, then he is being incredibly cavalier with the lives of people he is supposed to represent. If people languish on death row in states such as Texas, which has the highest number of executions per year than any other US state, for sometimes decades, what would enable Britain to speed up the process? Death row prisoners would have to be housed in super-maximum, certainly solitary confinement conditions and more than likely watched 24 hours a day. Who pays for that; our already cash strapped prison system? Who pays for the team of lawyers needed to represent someone in a capital case and throughout the appeals process? Society. It cost the state of Florida $5m to send serial killer, Ted Bundy, to the electric chair. It would have cost just under $2m to keep him in prison until he was 90.
The question of 'closure' and the rights of the victims to see their loved one avenged is also often raised. I think it is a touch arrogant to assume that everybody wants to see his or her relative's killer executed. In the US, there have been numerous incidences of the victim's family campaigning against the execution of the victim's killer, through either their own, or knowledge of the victim's opposition to capital punishment. "You might change your tune if you had had a child or loved one murdered" is often suggested to those who oppose the death penalty. That may be, but I could also suggest that perhaps those in favour of it may also change their opinion, should it be their brother, son, sister or mother, who find themself standing unjustly on the scaffold.
The 'common sense' narrative on capital punishment may appeal to the visceral sense of revenge and 'justice' that naturally resides in most people, but the pragmatic truth is that it is an impractical and dangerous step backwards. While it may seem to many to be wholly righteous to send monsters such as Roy Whiting to the gallows, the risk of there being another Timothy Evans, or indeed the cost of the death penalty as a whole, is far too high. What do you say to the family of a person who has been wrongfully executed? Perhaps the Daily Mail-reading, Guidoites would like that job? Or, should his quest succeed and as he is so hell-bent on seceding from Europe ("Yet another reason why we should be Better Off Out"), perhaps Roger Helmer, MEP, would volunteer for the role when he is out of a job?
I have created another petition in opposition to the Guido Fawkes one. As soon as the link arrives, I will add it to this blog post.
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