Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Death Penalty

Owing to the fact that I write historical fiction that tends to include its fair share of blood and horror, as well as the fact that I have always taken an unfortunate interest in the macabre, I have happened to have read a number of texts concerning this issue. Be it methods of execution, historical developments, miscarriages of justice, cultural trends and current cases, capital punishment is one topic that from the dawn of civilisation has never failed to lower its head from the parapet of debate.

The most frequent cases that are brought to our attention seem to be state executions in the US (perhaps the interest derives from the rarity of a western country enforcing this kind of punishment) and those in the Middle East involving either Westerners or women who have been made scapegoats by the fundamental Islamic regime. There are, of course, numerous other countries that still enforce capital punishment on a frequent basis the world over – countries such as China, North Korea, Vietnam and Sudan often fail to register on the compass of popular journalism (usually due to their clandestine political regimes) but are frequent killers of criminals.

I have often considered how fortunate we are not to have the matter existing in practice whilst we contemplate its status. The last execution took place in England in 1964 prior to its abolition for murder in 1969 (despite the fact that it was retained in principle for treason until 1998 when Mr Blair decided to sell our rights to law-making to the EU without informing us – but less of that for now). Those final hangings were sixteen years prior to the year I was born, which starts to bring home the reality of state execution. If that is not enough, though, consider France. Having brought in the guillotine as a more “humane” method of execution during the Revolution, its use continued throughout the nineteenth century, before the final public beheading in Paris in 1939. However, whilst it was moved out of the sight of the blood-thirsty French public, state executions continued throughout the twentieth century under a succession of French leaders, until the final use of the guillotine in 1977 – three years before my life began!

Quite a sobering thought – and one that just shows that we do not have to shift through too many historical gears in order to bring the realities of the past back to life.

In terms of my own feelings towards the use of capital punishment, I have constantly shifted my inclinations. As futile, shallow and weak-willed as this may seem, I am one of these people who watches 10 Rillington Place and immediately decides to oppose its use, whilst on recapping upon 9/11 and other such atrocities, I want it brought back.

In the cold light of day, however, the fundamental problem that I have struggled with is that I find it difficult to contemplate a civilised society being able to exist when the governing state imposes death upon its members. You can add in miscarriages of justice as a further reason but I would also point to the ever-present search for the most humane method of execution being an indicator that presents a barrier to progress. If we feel that hanging is barbaric, beheading too gruesome and lethal injection not as efficient as some make out, we will never be content until a method is sourced whereby no single person acts as executioner, no pain or trauma is felt and the point of death is not even present as a moment in the condemned’s consciousness. We want a more humane method, but why should we be concerned about the humanity of criminals when they displayed no such virtue to their victims? Moreover, to what crimes should capital punishment apply? Murder? Even though this is often committed out of passion and not gain? How would execution be a deterrent? Robbery? Rape?

At present, I cannot help but feel that someone guilty of these crimes is better served rotting in the depths of prison, isolated from the world they have violated. Given the choice, I would personally bring the death penalty back to the UK, but only for crimes of high treason against the state, which is why I would not utter the slightest trace of remorse should they find Khalil Sheikh Mohammed guilty (when they eventually bring him to trial). Anything else and I would avoid the donning of the black cap entirely.


  1. Though I personally find them less and less persuasive as the years roll by, there may well be good reasons for the unacceptability of capital punishment - but don't be fooled into thinking Ten Rillington Place is one of them.
    The book was a knowingly fraudulent piece of political propaganda in which the facts were twisted - often way beyond absurdity - to suit a pre-decided conclusion.
    John Eddowes's book The Two Killers of Rillington Place is hard to come by, but well worth the effort of tracking down. The son of the pro-Evans campaigner who first alerted Ludovic Kennedy to the case, Eddowes patiently exposes the errors, delusions and lies that pock mark the now-official Kennedy version of the story, and reveals the more than ample evidence that shows beyond doubt that Evans was guilty as charged. Why are its findings not commonplace? Because Kennedy, true to form, had the book suppressed, and because when cherished myths depend on a certain version of events being true, what price facts?

  2. Clearly you have a far greater knowledge of the subject of the Christie murders than I! I guess I was using the message conveyed in the film as an example of the side of the argument, whether it be historically accurate or not. And that is the point – there is often grey area here – we often want to cherrypick who does and does not warrant the death penalty. As for Evans – I would certainly be interested to read that book