Tuesday 10 November 2015

50 Year Anniversary of the End of Capital Punishment in Britain

Last Sunday had another remembrance, apart from the war dead, it was the 50th anniversary of the suspension of capital punishment (hanging) in the England, Scotland and Wales. It was abolished in Northern Ireland in 1973. The last executions were in 1964, when Peter Anthony Allen, at Walton Prison in Liverpool, and Gwynne Owen Evans, at Strangeways Prison in Manchester, were executed.

The Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965 was passed in Parliament with a ‘sunset’ clause, meaning that the legislation would be reviewed in 1969, which it was, and the practice was formally abolished in that year (for murder). Capital punishment was still technically possible for treason and piracy until the introduction of The Human Rights Act in 1998, but was never used again.

The death penalty is outlawed in the European Union, but France held its last execution (by guillotine) in 1977 and finally ended the practice in 1981, which was the latest of any country in Western Europe. France's last held public execution was in 1939, in England it was 1868.

Amnesty International says that 22 nations still retain the death penalty, with China thought to hold the most executions, followed by Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The US still executes its citizens, although nineteen states and the District of Columbia do not have the death penalty.

Albert Pierrepoint is probably the best known British hangman, who executed over 400 people. He came to fame, as it were, for hanging many Nazi war criminals after World War 2, but it is thought he had doubts about capital punishment after retiring. In 1974 he wrote in his autobiography Executioner:

‘It is said to be a deterrent. I cannot agree. There have been murders since the beginning of time, and we shall go on looking for deterrents until the end of time. If death were a deterrent, I might be expected to know. It is I who have faced them last, young men and girls, working men, grandmothers. I have been amazed to see the courage with which they take that walk into the unknown. It did not deter them then, and it had not deterred them when they committed what they were convicted for. All the men and women whom I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder.’

I heard an interview with a retired prison officer on BBC Radio the other day, he served at the time when capital punishment was still carried out. He was asked about how the condemned prisoners behaved in their final days. The officer said that there was always hope for them, up until the last day, first an appeal, and then a final appeal to the Home Secretary.

Public pressure to abolish the death penalty built throughout the late 1950s and the case of Ruth Ellis, the last women to be hanged in England, caused widespread controversy, in 1955. The case evoked exceptionally intense press and public interest to the point that it was discussed by the Cabinet.

On the day of her execution a Daily Mirror columnist wrote a column attacking the sentence, writing "The one thing that brings stature and dignity to mankind and raises us above the beasts will have been denied her – pity and the hope of ultimate redemption." The British Pathe newsreel reporting Ellis' execution openly questioned whether capital punishment - of a female or of anyone - had a place in the 20th century. The public though are said to have largely supported the execution.

Free votes were held in Parliament on reintroducing capital punishment right up until the 1990s, but were always lost.

Opinion polls on the subject of capital punishment regularly show a majority of the British public in favour reintroduction, but the gap gets narrower as time passes. An e-petition for Parliament to debate reintroduction in 2011 did not attract much support and had less support than a counter petition at the time.

It is strange to think, that in my lifetime, just, my country was still executing people. I’ve always felt it is abhorrent, the state taking away the life of its citizens. It feels like an ancient ritual, from a long ago barbaric past.

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