I read with interest the various twitter entries and blog postings this weekend following the announcement of the political blogger Guido Fawkes that he intended to create an e-petition seeking to reinstate the death penalty. As ever and unsurprisingly there were vociferous views expressed on both sides, some based on reasoned evidence and others based on nothing more than heartfelt emotion.
The reintroduction of the death penalty is a discussion that gets stirred up every now and then by the mainstream media or campaigning groups. Often, but not always, in the immediate aftermath of some tragedy or the sentencing of a particularly heinous crime. The debate takes hold like a bushfire, lots of heat and smoke and then peters out to a smouldering ember waiting to be fanned into life at some point in the future.
The pro and anti viewpoints are well represented elsewhere in the media and internet. I do not intend to address those arguments here. My view is that the usual pro argument regarding a life for a life, cost and deterrent are founded in emotion and not fact. Have a look at the blog postings of @charonqc (www.charonqc.wordpress.com) and @davidallengreen (www.jackofkent.blogspot.com) for short and sharp ripostes to those arguments. On the other side the anti arguments whilst founded in fact perhaps fail to understand or take into account the emotion and strength of feeling on the issue.
The Sun, never a paper to knowingly let a bandwagon roll by, have shown their support for the current campaign. After all, a lynch mob can buy a lot of papers.
They ran a similar campaign in 2008, when they claimed at the time that 99% of the 95000 readers who had responded to their survey supported the death penalty for all murders. In one article they canvassed the opinions of various family members who had suffered a loss in headline murder cases at the time. With the exception of one person, Sara Payne, they all believed that the death penalty was not only necessary but also just. (www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/justice/article841077.ece)
The clamour and volume of the pro lobby, then as now, is perhaps indicative of how the public view the issue of sentencing as a whole.
Ask the next person you see what the purpose of sentencing is and I would hazard a guess they will tell you punishment. If you ask them whether there are any other purposes to sentencing and they will struggle.
Of course punishment is important but it is only one of the five aims set out in the Criminal Justice Act. The others include deterrence, rehabilitation, protection of the public and reparation to the victim. These are often forgotten in the need for justice to be seen to be done.
Having spoken to a number of people about the campaign, there was a very clear majority in favour of the death penalty. With non lawyer friends the percentage of people supporting the death penalty was very high. Less so with lawyers, and all but one criminal lawyer I spoke to opposed it.
The level of support did not really surprise me; what surprised me was the number of people who went on to say that they would happily pull the lever or administer the injection.
Moreover they would not want to see the death penalty limited to child or police killers, but for all murders, rapes and child sex offences.
The key reason given was that a murderer or a rapist has taken the life of another and therefore does not deserve their own. That the sentences passed at present don’t reflect the seriousness of the offence. Life should mean life, and not thirty years with the chance of parole much earlier than that.
Each successive government professes to be the party of law and order, to want to address the causes of crime and to be tough on those that commit crime.
Yet the public simply don’t see this. They expect those that assault them, burgle their houses or murder their family to be sent to prison for a very long period of time and in most cases not be released. Made worse by injudicious comments by ministers who suggested the sentence may be reduced even earlier by a quick guilty plea. The public take the view that a guilty plea deserves a proper sentence whenever it is entered.
They don’t see the criminal being treated as a criminal; they see murderers being given three meals a day, satellite TV and games consoles, education courses and support when they leave prison. They see criminals being able to campaign for voting rights, being able sue for damages when their rights are infringed and they, as tax-payers paying for it all.
They see themselves as the victims or the relatives of victims being given nothing, perhaps having to see the criminal walk down their High Street larger than life a few years later.
So in that context the death penalty is the easiest and most just punishment. They can’t have all those things if they have been executed.
The question I asked all those who supported the death penalty was what if their was a mistake. What about the fallibility of the system. What if, as has happened, an innocent man gets put to death? The degree of certainty in the system by some was amazing, others perhaps in jest suggested it was a risk worth taking if the courts got it right most of the time.
When asked whether their support would be as unstinting if it was a member of their family that was facing a death sentence, then the doubts were raised. Then the issue of absolute certainty in evidence comes to the fore, the issue of right of appeal and so forth. Yet, to their credit most would still support it but for a much smaller list of offences.
One of the people I asked turned the issue on the head for me. What would I want to happen to the person who abducted and killed my three year old son? My head as a lawyer who works in the system, says prosecute to the full extent of the law, and a life sentence.
My heart says string him up from the nearest tree.
The issue deserves time to be properly discussed. The pro campaign, the anti campaign are both right on their own way. If nothing else let this campaign be used to examine the wider issues of sentencing and the publics concern there,
I am anti the death penalty, it should have no place in a modern and progressive society. The arguments on cost, rights and justification are in my view outweighed by the harm. Two wrongs do not make a right.
Let the debate not be about which MPs stand up and be counted for putting the publics rights ahead of child and police killers. Let the debate be about restoring the trust in the justice system as a whole.