Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale have both recently been found guilty of the murder of solider Lee Rigby back in May. Also, Ian Watkins, member of the band Lostprophets, has in the same week been convicted of child sexual offences and given a 35 year prison sentence. Although Lee Rigby’s killers have not yet been sentenced and despite the conviction of Ian Watkins, the never ending debate of capital punishment has emerged as a topic of heated discussion once again. Obviously, the actions of these individuals or those who have committed similar serious crimes cannot be condoned, and they must be punished by justice befitting the crime, but would the reintroduction of the death penalty actually be a befitting punishment and would it deter other potential criminals? I think not.
Take Tony Martin for instance, who was convicted for shooting dead a burglar on his farm in Norfolk. He was charged with murder for that offence but was eventually only convicted of manslaughter. So, manslaughter being a serious offence along with murder and sex offences already mentioned, he would have been handed the death penalty and executed – despite acting in self-defence (although at the time illegally) and suffering from a personality disorder which caused his original conviction of murder to be quashed. Capital punishment would therefore seem to be a rather heavy-handed and exaggerated approach for someone who only served three years imprisonment.
Then there is also the controversial topic of euthanasia, which is still generally considered to be murder in the UK. If capital punishment were to be introduced, this would mean that a mother giving a fatal overdose of medication to her terminally ill child through compassion would be liable for murder and could receive the death penalty. Of course, those seeking the reintroduction of capital punishment would argue that it would be at judges’ discretion as to what punishment the defendant would be given. But, because the British justice system is theoretically fair, if one person is sentenced to death for murder everyone convicted of murder must be given the death penalty to show that nobody is getting off lightly.
And does it really act as a deterrent? Capital punishment was used in the UK right up until it was replaced in 1965, and yet serious offences such as murder still occur today. The death penalty was used as a form of punishment throughout the Middle Ages for a whole host of varying offences and yet crime was by no means eradicated. During that period, a defendant’s guilt could be proven by dunking the accused into a lake where if he sank he was innocent but if he floated he was guilty; if those believing that capital punishment is the way forward, do they also want to bring back ancient rituals such as trial by ordeal?
For people such as the murderers of Lee Rigby, who claim to have carried out their actions because of religious beliefs, a punishment of death for them would have the effect of transforming them into martyrs of their cause, with the potential of others with the same beliefs committing the same crimes, in the hope of the same gratifying punishments. This could increase the possibility of further acts of extremism. However, a prison sentence would have the effect of showing them up as failures, meaning others would be less likely to follow in their footsteps.
But the most obvious and overwhelming point to support the current nonexistence of the death penalty is that the justice system, as we all know, is not perfect and that mistakes are made. A mistake by the police, the jury or any one of the large numbers of people involved in the crime investigation and court processes would mean that a person could be wrongly found guilty of a crime and consequently sentenced to death. The execution of an innocent person would inevitably generate negative headlines, further scathing the often criticised justice system. Indeed, the decision would be very difficult to overturn – in fact most definitely irreversible.
This would also, again for bluntly simplistic reasons, make the justice system unfair. Anyone handed the death penalty could not appeal against their conviction if they had already been executed. The basic principle of British law- that of everyone being entitled to a fair trial- would subsequently not be upheld. And even if executions could be suspended until after an appeal had been heard, this would not help enforce justice. Presumably, the defendant would continue to appeal decisions by courts, attempting to be acquitted of his crime – it would be the Abu Qatada farce all over again. So, it seems clear that a reintroduction of capital punishment would actually have a detrimental effect on the British justice system, and that the idea of the death penalty is not as black and white as it may appear. It really is an old fashioned punishment and way of upholding the law; next thing we know there will be calls to ship convicts away to Australia again.
By James Morris