UKIP Leadership contender Paul Nuttall has made headlines by supporting the return of the death penalty for certain types of murder. Asked on Sky News if he would like to see the return of capital punishment, Paul said that he would like to see it brought back for child killers and serial killers, and that if enough people signed a petition then he would back putting it to a national referendum.
This made me question my own views on the death penalty. I loathe received wisdom. It spreads through the lazy, unquestioning and hard-of-thinking in our society like a virus, and before you know where you are everyone firmly believes that the vikings wore horns on their helmets (they didn’t) or that the French Front Nationale are right wing (they aren’t).
I’m therefore deeply ashamed to say that on closer examination my opinions on the death penalty were, if I’m honest, of the received variety. The usual, shallow, platitudes; civilised countries don’t execute people; the risk of executing the innocent is too terrible to contemplate.
Thank God for Peter Hitchens. A quick bit of research revealed his case for reinstating the death penalty. This bears all the Hitchens hallmarks; the enviable clarity of thought, the rational, evidence based conclusions. Listening to Hitchens, the case to reinstate the death penalty seems unanswerable.
Some will object to the death penalty on moral grounds; that we in the UK are too civilised, or that we dislike the idea of giving the state the power to kill people. This objection cannot rationally be made when we already have a death penalty in all but name in the UK. Any one of our armed police officers may find themselves in the unenviable position of having to administer it. Without any trial or appeal, officers must make an often split second decision to kill. So it is not sufficient to say that we are too civilised in the UK to kill in the name of the law. We already do it.
Moreover we fight wars, some arguably more justified than others, but in all of them both the innocent and guilty alike will be killed by the agents of the British state. Very few people would argue that there are no circumstances in which the state should kill people, whether it be the war against Hitler’s Nazis or a police officer taking down a terrorist. How then can we object on moral grounds to killing convicted murderers, when we accept the necessity of the state killing others without even a trial?
Invariably opponents of the death penalty will point to the United States with its comparatively high murder rate as evidence that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent. This ignores the fact that the death penalty has effectively been abolished in the US. Some twenty states have abolished it completely. Of the 30 others, 4 have a moratorium on the death penalty, and many of the rest have not executed anyone for years.
Kill someone in the US and you are highly unlikely to be sentenced to death. One can not seriously describe the US as having the death penalty for murder when there are thousands of murders every year but only a handful of executions. In 2014 there were 14,249 recorded murders and 35 executions. Anyone contemplating murder or potentially lethal violence will consider these odds no deterrent.
The objection that carried most weight with me was the thought of executing an innocent man. It should be remembered that this hardly ever happened when we had the death penalty and is even less likely now with the advance in DNA, fingerprinting and so on. After a trial by jury, a unanimous guilty verdict of that jury, and the full appeal process, a miscarriage of justice is highly unlikely. Particularly if we are considering reintroducing the death penalty for serial killers. We are not talking about the death penalty as practiced in places like China or by some tin pot dictator, nor for trivial crimes (at its peak, 220 crimes were once punishable by death), but as Nuttall suggests it would only be reintroduced for certain types of murder. I would include the killing of a police officer or member of the armed forces.
The state execution of even one innocent person is not something to be taken lightly. This small possibility must be weighed against the fact that innocent people are dying because we do not have the death penalty. It is not unknown for convicted murderers, who would have been sentenced to death if the option were available, to be let out of jail and kill again. Between 2000 and 2010, 36 convicted killers were released who then went on to kill again. While the sentencing to death of an innocent person is a legitimate concern, everything possible will be done to avoid such a tragedy, and it doesn’t seem credible that there would be 36 or more such cases in a decade.
Reinstating the death penalty will undoubtedly save innocent lives. It will be the deterrent to lethal violence that it was up to 1965. While there undoubtedly are murders that could never be deterred, there are many that could. Statistics were kept for the 5 years that capital punishment was suspended in Britain (1965-1969) and these showed a 125% rise in murders that would have attracted a death sentence. When we had the death penalty for killing in the course of a robbery, the robbers would check each other to ensure none of them were carrying guns or knives before embarking on the robbery. How many deaths from “robberies gone wrong” did this prevent?
Clearly there are many variables involved, but it is undoubtedly true that the murder rate per head is much higher now than when the death penalty was in force. It is also undoubtedly true that the murder rate would be considerably higher now if our ability to treat trauma had not advanced massively since the 60s. Many of those who are saved from life threatening injuries today would have become murder statistics 50 years ago.
The lack of a death penalty not only deprives us of an effective deterrent to murder, in some cases it positively encourages it. Having committed rape or robbery, the offender knows that, without a death penalty, there is no effective additional punishment if they were to kill their victim. Moreover this will remove a witness, perhaps the only witness, to their crime. Criminals are rational beings, and it’s a quite rational decision to murder in these circumstances; they have something to gain by it and nothing to lose.
There are other arguments in favour; that it is hardly humane to lock a human being away with no prospect of release, that the cost of doing so is not a good use of taxpayer’s money, that prisons are overcrowded. But I am yet to hear of any argument against reinstating the death penalty that is both evidence based and rational. It seems to have fallen out of favour with the political class more out of squeamishness than for any rational reason.
I would encourage the new UKIP leader to look at the rational case, be brave, and make the reintroduction of the death penalty a UKIP campaign and manifesto policy for 2020. It will of course mean waving goodbye to the European Convention on Human Rights, and will require us setting our face against the political and media establishment. But I am sure we will have the backing of a majority of the British people in that.