Saul Lehfreund, Co-Executive Director of The Death Penalty Project reflects on John Hayes MP’s calls for the UK government to consider re-introducing the death penalty.
The UK abolished the death penalty more than 50 years ago for very good reason. For John Hayes to suggest that we should step back into the past and consider reintroducing capital punishment is not only absurd, but shows he is blind to the grim reality of the death penalty that our law has recognised since 1965.
Our own history of capital punishment was one of waking up to the horrors of the death penalty. The movement towards abolition in the UK was spurred by a combination of factors, most significantly a recognition that imposition of the death penalty was inextricably linked to error, arbitrariness, discrimination against the marginalised and vulnerable, and, inevitably, cruelty. In the 1950’s several high profile executions raised concerns that the innocent, mentally disabled and vulnerable were being executed. Among these were the notorious cases of Dereck Bentley, Timothy Evans and Ruth Ellis, all causing ripples of public disquiet.
A shocking series of miscarriage of justice cases came to light in subsequent years, including the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four (all wrongfully convicted of murder through terrorist bombings). Thankfully the death penalty was no longer an option when these individuals were sentenced, but would Mr Hayes think twice had they been executed, for these are surely the most serious types of cases Mr Hayes would have considered fit for the death penalty? Is Mr Hayes prepared to accept the reintroduction of state killings knowing all that we know from our history of capital punishment?
I can only echo the sentiments of the Edward Agar, the Under Secretary of State for Justice in response to Mr Hayes’ preposterous parliamentary question on the merits of reintroducing capital punishment: “the reintroduction of the death penalty would bring with it the very real risk that some innocent people would die.” One need only look at the work of the Criminal Cases Review Commission, an independent public body set up in 1997 to review possible miscarriages of justice in the criminal courts of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In 20 years roughly two-thirds of the 634 cases that had been referred by the Commission to the Court of Appeal resulted in convictions being overturned. Looking further afield, in the US, for every nine executions there is one exoneration, with a staggering 164 persons exonerated and freed from death row since 1973. Wrongful convictions are not confined to any particular country. In 2016 at least 60 prisoners from retentionist states around the world were exonerated after being sentenced to death.
Mr Hayes suggests that the death penalty is an effective deterrent and an appropriate response to rising crime rates. None of the available evidence supports the assertion that the death penalty provides a uniquely effective deterrent to murder. This is clear from research conducted on this question in the US, and from comparisons among states with similar demographic and socio-economic profiles, which show no variance of homicide rates according to whether or not the death penalty is retained and used. In fact there are many examples of homicide rates falling after the death penalty has been abolished. The idea that returning to capital punishment would combat rising crime is a fallacy.
Mr Hayes also suggests that he speaks on behalf of the British people who would support a return to the death penalty. On the contrary, public opinion polls in the UK have shown a steady decline in support for capital punishment. Support in particular is much lower amongst those who have never grown up with the expectation that anyone in this country will be executed. In any event Mr Hayes’ questionable and misleading perceptions of public opinion cannot justify a departure from human rights commitments and over half a century without state sanctioned executions. Democracy must not be abused in such a way as to diminish human rights and legitimise a punishment the majority of the world now regards to be cruel, inhuman and degrading.
Only 23 countries carried out executions last year and most of those state killings took place in China Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. There is an uncomfortable correlation between authoritarian, repressive regimes where the rule of law is fragile and use of the death penalty. In Europe, only Belarus retains the death penalty. Today, more than seventy-five percent of the world’s nations have rejected the death penalty. The UK has a reputation as a country that respects human rights, exemplified by our global advocacy for abolition of the death penalty. Should we take seriously Mr Hayes’ suggestion the country would be taken in a very different direction and our values seriously compromised.