Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Capital Punishment

I don’t object to it in principle, for reasons I shall explain later, but it does need to be carefully controlled, and I mean controlled by us, the people. The EU decided a few years ago that we should not be allowed to determine for ourselves how we wish to protect our societies from murderers, thus making us a little less free. Our own Parliament has, in any case, been ignoring the wishes of the people in this matter for 40 years, so it probably made little difference, but it is one more petty tyranny by those who cannot abide the idea of freedom.

In Britain there has always been a majority in favour of capital punishment for murder. In Spain the death penalty was abolished by the 1978 Constitution, agreed by all parties and approved overwhelmingly in a referendum. Execution was too closely associated with the dictatorship of Franco for the Spanish to be comfortable with it. (Even though nearly all those executed were murderers, rather than ‘enemies of the state’) Moreover, there were no juries in Spain (this is no longer strictly true- there now are for certain trials, but their verdicts are not binding in most circumstances).

A young woman was executed last week in Iran, which is what has prompted me to write about the subject. Something about it makes me uneasy. Not the possibility of her innocence- I am assuming she was guilty for the purposes of the argument (she confessed repeatedly, although she also retracted her confessions; there is no political implication in this, and I imagine in the absence of other pressures even Iranian judges prefer not to send innocent women to die). Not the fact that she started painting pictures to pass the time in prison, which most papers seem to think is the crux of the whole business. Nor the fact that she was only 17 when the murder was committed. She is legally an adult for the purposes of Iranian law, and in any case, if she had been 18, or 21, I should still feel the same unease.

And I should not. She committed murder, and that is the price you pay. If I believe in executing some violent thug who has finally gone too far, the same must apply to a young woman who has done the same. And my instinct says it should not. My instinct is therefore wrong in one sense or the other. Given that the murder was not committed in the abstract, but had as its victim an old woman who was alone in her house when Darabi and her boyfriend broke in and killed her, it may well be this latter instinct that is wrong, but either way it is very hard to arrive at any convincing conclusion by playing around with these gut feelings.

The way in which people perceive this subject depends a great deal on the experience they have of government, whether the ‘people’ or ‘society’ really take these decisions or they are seen to be controlled by the state. In Britain we have juries, and have had for hundreds of years. They represent, together with public trials (another thing the EU seems to dislike) a great bastion against the arbitrary intervention of government in the judicial process. Juries caused the repeal of the Black Acts in the 18th C by refusing to convict on capital charges which they did not think deserved death. Again in the 19th C it was partly the reticence of juries to convict that led to the abolition of the death penalty for all crimes but murder (and treason and a few oddities for which it was never applied in peacetime). That is democracy in action, hard though it is for some to understand it. But, juries were not failing to convict for murder in the 50’s and 60’s when they knew it carried a mandatory death sentence. The decision was taken by Parliament, on behalf of the people, not in representation of their will.

For what crimes, then, should punishment by death be available to the court? Not necessarily all murders, or certainly not automatically. For the (premeditated) murder of children? Probably. The murder of police officers in the exercise of their duty. Quite possibly. Terrorist murders? A trickier one, but probably not. Politicians love to politicize everything and the media love to help them. Before long everyone who felt sympathy for a killer (and there are always plenty including in the media) would be calling them freedom fighters or common criminals, and those who did not find the right advocates would become terrorists whatever the real circumstances of their crime. The question of motivation would become one of life and death, but divorced from reality (and that ignores the fact that for many terrorist murderers the motivation is the bloodshed, and the supposed cause is secondary, or merely a pretext). For ‘hate crimes’? No, no and no again. It serves no purpose, can be twisted, in the right hands, to mean almost anything (see terrorism above) and would lead to monstrous injustices, both by excess and by defect. It is unconscionable; but, if capital punishment were to return in this country, it would probably happen. Which is a good reason not to have it, I suppose.

Since the decision is not mine, and we have been told that no one cares what we think about it or why, it is possible to consider the matter freely, to ask questions without answering them, to only half-understand, and even to be wrong. But it is worth thinking, and forming an opinion. One day they might want to know.

1 comment:

Vincent said...

An excellent piece. Personally I am against the return of the death penalty in Britain, but your point is not to argue the merits one way or the other, but to point out the lack of democracy in this matter, whilst taking the reader on a interesting and relevant stroll through various facts and ideas.

I corresponded for a couple of years, as it happens, with a prisoner on Death Row in Florida. If he was guilty, he killed a woman after premeditation to steal a modest payroll and left her body in the woods. He'd been on Death Row for years and I had a strange feeling about what it all meant: as if he had subconsciously killed in order to be put on death row, in order to be clamped securely into a place where his rootlessness and lack of good family relationships could be transmuted from its base metal into some kind of gold. There was no mysticism in his letters, although he had been much influenced by Bo Lozoff's "Prison Ashram" program.