Despite its popularity, the death penalty would allow the state to kill innocent people
The University of Michigan law school and Northwestern University have just compiled a database of over 2,000 United States prisoners exonerated between 1999 and the present day. One of the study’s findings was that death row inmates were exonerated nine times more frequently that others convicted of murder, raising the possibility that many innocent people have been sent to their deaths by the American justice system.
The last time a person was executed in Britain was 1964, and the death penalty was formally abolished in 1965. There were originally some 220 crimes on the statute books that warranted the death penalty, most reflecting a desire to protect private property; although others were of a more eccentric nature, such as a law against being in the company of gypsies for one month.
While the death penalty was last debated in Parliament in 2008, retribution is a big thing in tabloid Britain, and a majority continue to say they would support the reintroduction of the ultimate sanction for those convicted of murder. That figure rises significantly when the victim is a child or a police officer. A campaign by the blogger Guido Fawkes last year to have a parliamentary debate on the issue failed, but it seems likely there will be further calls for the re-introduction of the death penalty the next time a particularly galling crime hits the headlines.
Contemptuously dismissing public opinion is one thing; but automatically conferring moral status on something for no other reason than popularity is quite another, and can be demagogic and dangerous. Self-professed libertarians like Staines should know this. In a representative liberal democracy, politicians are put in office to protect the individual from a potentially over-bearing majority. As the American political satirist P.J. O’Rourke put it (rather frivolously, in this context): “Imagine if all of life were determined by majority rule. Every meal would be a pizza. Every pair of pants would be stone-washed denim, [and] celebrity diet and exercise books would be the only thing on the shelves at the library.”
While writing little on capital punishment herself, libertarian icon Ayn Rand did publish a brief article by Nathaniel Branden in response to the question “What is the Objectivist stand on capital punishment?” The letter made the obvious point that there can rarely, if ever, be 100 per cent certainty of guilt, and exonerating a person after they have been executed is altogether too late.
“If it were possible to by fully and irrevocably certain, beyond any possibility of error, that a man were guilty, then capital punishment for murder would be appropriate and just. But men are not infallible; juries make mistakes; that is the problem. There have been instances recorded where all the available evidence pointed overwhelmingly to a man’s guilt, and the man was convicted, and then subsequently discovered to be innocent. It is the possibility of executing an innocent man that raises doubts about the legal advisability of capital punishment. It is preferable to sentence ten murderers to life imprisonment, rather than sentence one innocent man to death.”
There are certain executions that modern advocates of the death penalty in Britain prefer not to talk about. One such case is that of Dereck Bentley, a British teenager who was put to death on January 28, 1953. Bentley was condemned for his part in a botched robbery in which Police Constable Sidney Miles was killed by Bentley’s friend, Christopher Craig. Due to the fact that Craig was only 16 at the time, he was sent to prison (he was released in 1963). Bentley, however, was convicted and sentenced to death, not for shooting dead the policeman, but for being party to murder under the English law principle of “joint enterprise”. A psychiatrist at Bentley’s trial stated that Bentley was illiterate, of low intelligence and borderline retarded.
Notwithstanding the dubious nature of putting someone to death for being an “accomplice” (a term open to wide interpretation), it subsequently came to light that there had been defects in the original trial process, and Dereck Bentley was pardoned. Bentley’s joy was diminished, however, by the fact that justice came 45 years after he had already been hanged.
In his 1998 essay, Scenes from an Execution, the late Christopher Hitchens alleged that politicians in the US were apt to play politics with the death penalty when it might win them votes in execution-hungry states. He also pointed out that despite executions of those with mental illness being prohibited by international law, glaring examples of unstable inmates being condemned were all too easy to find. The National Association of Mental Health has estimated that between five to ten percent of those on death row in the US have serious mental illness.
“I can’t help recalling Rick Ray Rector, the man executed by Governor Clinton during the 1992 New Hampshire primary. So gravely impaired and lobotomised was he that, when they came to take him away, he explained that he was leaving a wedge of pecan pie ‘for later.’ Laid upon the gurney, he helped them find a vein for the intravenous because he thought they were doctors come at last to cure him.”
Many people like to believe that the death penalty acts as an effective deterrent by instilling a fear that committing a crime will put you at risk of losing your own life. Most evidence, however, suggests the death penalty does not cut crime. In spite of it being one of the few advanced countries to still carry out executions, the US has the greatest number of murders per 100,000 inhabitants of any comparable country. The South, which accounts for some 80 per cent of executions, has the highest regional murder rate. The experts concur. Eighty-eight percent of the US’s top criminologists do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent, according to a study published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.
Tempting though it may be to view the death penalty as a quick, efficient form of retribution on the back of appalling crimes, one need not be a libertarian to recognise that capital punishment is the worst form of big government.
Follow James on Twitter: @Obligedtooffend