Rolling analysis: The death penalty debate

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Review our live rolling analysis of today's death penalty debate, as the country seeks justice after yesterday's terrible murder in Greater Manchester.

17:30 – Don't forget the victims' families

I'm going to wrap up today's rolling analysis with a final thought about the victims' families, and the way in which media attention can actually make what is really a very difficult experience even harder for them.

Peter Hodgkinson, the director of the Centre for Capital Punishment (see 14:20 and 12:15 below), says wherever you go around the world the families of murder victims often end up pummelled by the harrowing experiences of the justice system. "You will find in many if not most countries that nothing is done about the victim, other than to sully their memory by dragging them up as part of a vengeful prosecution," he says. The families are going to be "driven into a vengeful corner" out of which no good will come, Hodgkinson warns. He recalls the effect the media had on Winnie Johnson, the mother of 12-year-old Keith Bennett murdered in 1964 by Moors murderer Ian Brady.

She "had all the scabs picked off her" and was "all stoked up" by the press, Hodgkinson says. "We were responsible for most of the misery in her life. Ian Brady killed her child. But we've been killing her ever since."

Winnie Johnson, of course, died last month.

17:05 – 'We should be stretching his neck'

It is the disconnect between Westminster's mainstream parties and the voting public which Ukip's candidate on Humberside for the police and crime commissioner election coming up this autumn, Godfrey Bloom, will be looking to exploit as the campaign enters its closing weeks.

Bloom does not hold back his views on capital punishment. "We're on the horns of a great moral dilemma here," he tells me in a brief break from campaigning against Labour's John Prescott. "Is it morally acceptable to keep this man alive at the public expense?" he asks. He's talking about the man thought to be responsible for the deaths of Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone in Manchester yesterday. "He's going to cost thousands of pounds, when we should be stretching his neck!"

Ukip's party policy is that the Commons should have a free vote on capital punishment, but Bloom is more outspoken. He believes there are three kinds of criminals: the misfits of society who end up in prison because there is nowhere else for them to go, first-time offenders who shouldn't be in jail at all, and then "the recidivist bad guy" who should be locked up for good.

"The guy who perpetrated this particular crime is beyond redemption," Bloom declares. "This guy isn't ever going to be a good citizen." When Britain abandoned the death sentence nearly half a century ago, Bloom insists, "we sent a terrible message to the violent criminal fraternity that said 'we no longer regard the taking of life as seriously as we have done'. I remember when they said 'murderers would go to prison for life, they wouldn't come out for these terrible crimes'. They're out all the bloody time, in a few years!"

He recalls a conversation with a retired prison officer who told him that if a prisoner returns to the cells having got life, "they cheer because that's a result". 'Life' means the offender will be out in seven years.

"What kind of society are they running if they cheer when they get a life sentence for murder?" Bloom asks. If a "thug" is convicted at the age of 25, he will be out by the time he is 33. "He's got lots of thuggery left in him."

It is wholly possible that distressing cases like the Manchester shooting will drive more voters towards Ukip, because "the artisan classes" – the Old Labour voters which Ukip targets in the north-east of England – will be frustrated by the "huge disconnect" between the electorate and politicians. Others may find their eyebrows raising at Bloom's uncompromising views.

The Ukip candidate does not believe the police should be armed as a result of the Manchester shooting.

"These things are terrible and horrifying but they're not that frequent, and I certainly don't think any form of kneejerk reaction in arming the police would be suitable," he says.

"If they thought they were on a routine investigation and they were set up to be ambushed, they wouldn't have time to react anyway. So it wouldn't have saved them."

 

15:40 – Voters ignored on the death penalty?

Earlier (13:45) Liberal Democrat Julian Huppert pointed out that an epetition in favour of the death penalty put forward by blogger Guido Fawkes had not got as many signatures as one calling for the ban on capital punishment to be retained. Guido may have lost the petition battle, but – unless there has been a dramatic change in recent years – a quick look at figures from pollsters Ipsos Mori suggests he is on the side of the public.

It seems clear that a majority of the public back the death penalty. Seventy per cent thought the UK should still have the death penalty as the maximum possible penalty for at least one of the 12 different types of crime surveyed in a 2009 poll. Fifty per cent strong agreed that the views of the public are being ignored by politicians. Three-quarters said they thought 'there should be more open debate in the UK about the penalties for serious crimes, including the death penalty'.

This dissatisfaction might be a blip, you could claim. And it's true that in a 2007 survey only 29% of people strongly favoured the death penalty for people convicted with murder. But my sense from the figures is that this was the anomaly. In 1995 76% felt that executing someone was justified at least sometimes. In 1978 that figure was 78%.

Public attitudes are malleable, but it does appear as if at least an overall majority of voters would rather there were some instances where British society demanded that its worst offenders pay with their lives. Which prompts the conclusion that politicians are simply saying 'we know best' to the public. A troubling conclusion for liberals – and on this issue, most of those in Westminster ARE liberals. But hard to get away from. Is this how democracy is supposed to work?

15:05 – Police 'distraught' at Manchester deaths

I've been speaking to a source at the Police Federation, a staff organisation for all police constables, sergeants and inspectors, about their reaction to yesterday's shootings. They are, like many members of the public, "distraught" by what's happened. Most officers accept the potential risk they face whenever they go out on the beat, or to investigate reports of a burglary – as PCs Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone did. But there appears to be a determination not to let the mood become one of high emotion quickly: in particular there are no calls for sudden changes to the way Britain's police do their work, or the way criminals are punished.

On the death penalty, it is actually the Police Federation's longstanding policy that it backs the reinstatement of capital punishment for those who kill police officers. But my understanding is that this situation may be subject to change in the future – and that far from intensifying support for this stance, yesterday's deaths may end up actually eroding it. "There's a strong feeling no political capital should be made out of this," my source says. "Neither is it right to start debating capital punishment – any move towards that would be knee-jerk."

As for the idea of arming police officers – well, that too is given short shrift. Every specialist firearms officer is given extensive training, and psychometric testing, too. It's doubtful whether large numbers of police officers in England and Wales would reach the level needed to be trusted with a gun. Those barriers are set very high for a reason.

15:10 - Greater Manchester Police Federation's chair, Ian Hanson, has told Police magazine:

"No words can describe the sadness and the anger GMP officers feel. We have no answers as to how anybody could commit such an unspeakable evil act on two decent and committed police officers and, to be frank, I do not think we ever will have.

"What I will say at this stage is every resource of the federation and GMP will be there to support the colleagues, family and friends of these two GMP officers who have given their lives doing the job they loved."

 

14:20 – The 'mythology' of the death penalty

With almost half a century now having passed since Britain dropped the death penalty, some are worried that those who are keen on bringing it back are viewing it through rose-tinted glasses.

"The mythology remains unchallenged," says Peter Hodgkinson of the Centre for Capital Punishment Studies (see 12:15 update below). People's confusion about the past continues, reducing the debate to the kind of soundbites uttered by Tebbit and co. "I think in a debate of any kind held in a vacuum isn't helpful and isn't healthy," Hodgkinson argues.

The answer is to look to places like the United States, which shows very clearly all of the disadvantages of retaining capital punishment.

"Even in the most richly resourced country in the world, with more bloody lawyers than bacteria, year on year, profound flaws continue to be experienced in the administration of the death penalty. These are flaws that in the case of a living sentence can be remedied. They're not irrevocable.

"It's not so much the procedures that they continue to refine and revise, it's the human beings who administer the system. Human beings are fallible, human beings are corrupt – it doesn't matter what the hell you put in place, these people are going to continue to subvert the rules of the game."

Hodgkinson, as you can see, doesn't exactly hold back. His views matter, too: since 1996 he has been expert and adviser on capital punishment to the Council of Europe and since 1997 a founding member of the foreign secretary's death penalty panel.

 

13:50 – Lib Dems reject 'unreconstructed' Tebbit

The death penalty debate is not going to become a live political issue, Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert, a member of the Commons' home affairs committee, has said. He is dismissive of the minority of "unreconstructed" Conservatives like Norman Tebbit who want the issue to be revisited – and believes that, when faced with the victims' families' calls for hanging to be reintroduced, politicians should stick by their principles.

Huppert says: "While I can understand people's anger and annoyance at tragic and brutal cases such as the murders yesterday, frankly there's no reason to believe that having a death penalty would prevent something like that from happening."

Take a look at the United States, Huppert says. They have a much higher homicide rate than in Britain. The treatment of those on death row is "astonishingly brutal". It's expensive and immoral, he argues.

"I can understand - to some extent only - what it must be like to be family member or a parent in a case like this, but the problem is it simply won't bring back their loved one."

Public opinion is not overwhelmingly in favour of more capital punishment, Huppert says. He points to an epetition begun by blogger Paul Staines calling for the restoration of capital punishment getting just 26,350 signatures – falling well short of the 100,000 threshold needed to ensure a Commons debate. By contrast, an epetition seeking to retain the ban attracted 33,454 signatures.

Huppert is not the only person to be rejecting Tebbit's arguments today. Here's an extract from a comment piece by politics.co.uk's own Ian Dunt, who is trenchantly against the idea of introducing the death penalty for police killers specifically.

Norman Tebbit talks about the effect of the "shadow of the gallows". The effect is entirely in his head. There is no evidence for it. It is evidence of a yearning for bloody vengeance, but it is not a solution.

You can read the piece in full here: Armed police and capital punishment will make crime worse

 

13:15 - A pro-death penalty view

After leaving the police, Chapman spent some time working with the Criminal Cases Review Commission as a case review manager. Among the cases he reviewed was that of James Hanratty, one of the last men to be hanged in the UK. He was executed in 1962 after being convicted of the murder of a scientist, Michael Gregsten, in his car. Gregsten's mistress was raped, shot and left paralysed in the same incident.

Chapman concluded that Hanratty's case was not a miscarriage of justice, as many of the time had felt. He has considered the issue carefully and even met Hanratty's brother, but after the Commission uncovered new DNA evidence linking Hanratty to the crimes, is comfortable with the conviction. He feels that there is still a case for the reinstatement of the death penalty.

"I think the philosophical case against the death penalty is not so clear-cut," he says. "My concern is [that if someone supports the death penalty] it is interestingly enough beginning to be used almost as a shortcut to a view that someone has extreme views, that demand ridicule."

Chapman's arguments are powerful. He points out Ian Huntley, for example, is costing the taxpayer tens of thousands of pounds. So is Ian Brady, who is having to be force-fed. "No one at all thinks these people were not guilty of the offences for which they were convicted. It seems odd that in a time of austerity that we take approach." In this age of DNA technology, when juries can be as certain as possible of someone's guilt, concerns about miscarriages of justice can be allayed. Then there are the arguments of Norman Tebbit in today's Telegraph newspaper, which Chapman says he agrees with. Tebbit says three people a year have been killed on average by people previously convicted of homicide and concludes:

Would our courts have sentenced to death thee innocent people a year, year in year out? I doubt it. I think it is time we thought again about the deterrent effect of the shadow of the gallows.


 

12:45 – The curious case of Gambia

Britain is not the only country revisiting its death penalty debate this year. Only last month Gambia, which is not thought to have carried out any executions since 1981, ended the lives of nine of the 47 criminals on death row. The president, Yahya Jammeh, had simply decided to make a move against the mostly political prisoners because of rising crime rates. The move did not meet with approval from the international community, including many African states, so last Friday he decided to impose a halt on further executions. If future crime rates show any increase, however, the moratorium may be lifted and some may be – in his words - 'immediately executed'.

Gambia is the most obvious example of a country which is going backwards on the death penalty. Like many states it never actually abolished capital punishment, but had simply stopped executing people. Another example of a country in reverse is Iraq, which had halted its executions after finishing off Saddam Hussein. With prime minister Nouri al-Maliki increasingly authoritarian, it is now becoming one of the worst countries in the world. According to Amnesty International, there were at least 68 executions in Iraq last year – and over 100 this year.

Overall, though, the global situation is a positive one for campaigners, in that it is only a small minority of states which continue to end the lives of their worst criminals. About 140 states are classed by Amnesty as 'abolitionists' – that's around two-thirds of the world's total. Of the remainder, only 21 executed people in 2011. China executes more criminals than the rest of the world's countries combined – the exact number is not known, but it's thought to be in the thousands. The Iranians are next, executing hundreds each year: at least 360 last year, and not all for fatal crimes. Neil Durkin of Amnesty says it is "particularly egregious and worrying" that Iran is executing more and more for drug offences.

It is the US which gets the most headlines, of course. Campaigners are upbeat about the situation in the States, thanks to falling popular support for capital punishment. The execution of Troy Davis last year, which also involved the death of a police officer, was widely suspected as being a miscarriage of justice – and is thought to be behind falling support as a result.

 

12:15 – Restricting the judiciary and Blunkett's "despicable reign" at the Home Office

Britain is supposedly a 'civilised' country when it comes to the death penalty. We abolished it in 1969, after the final hanging in 1964. But some, not happy with the fact that we don't have capital punishment any more, are frustrated with our arrangements relating to the most brutal murderers. Peter Hodgkinson, one of the country's most respected criminologists and the director of the Centre for Capital Punishment Studies at the University of Westminster, is one of them.

"The Foreign Office spends zillions of pounds going around the world campaigning against the mandatory death penalty. But look close to home and we continue to fetter the discretion of the judiciary," he points out. Hodgkinson singles out former home secretary David Blunkett in this regard; the former New Labour minister introduced a mandatory 14-year tariff for homicides after lord chief justice Lord Woolf proposed giving murderers a third of their time off for pleading guilty. Blunkett enjoyed a "despicable reign" at the Home Office, according to Hodgkinson. "Politicians of all colours and all libertarian and/or liberal complexions have steadfastly refused to look at removing the mandatory nature of the alternative sentence to the death penalty, which is life imprisonment," he complains.

His argument is that we ought to have a judiciary which politicians can trust to make decisions based on the case. In some countries this isn't possible; when Hodgkinson was helping Azerbaijan redraft its penal code their proposal for a single homicide was a seven-year term. This was pushed up to eight to 12 years, but that about the limit of their flexibility. "They couldn't consider allowing open discretion to the judges who are corrupt. They have to fetter their discretion," he says. Britain doesn't have that problem. But the politicians are still not prepared to allow the judicial system as much discretion as it could.

Criminologists are not accountable to voters, which might have something to do with their liberal approach: it's up to the politicians to strike the right balance between the academic view on what actually works, and the practical realities of maintaining the public's confidence. It's an issue I'll be looking to explore in more detail later on this afternoon.

 

11:45 – Death penalty and the police and crime commissioner elections

Sam Chapman is the editor of the Top Of The Cops blog, which has been following campaigning across England and Wales ahead of November 15th's police and crime commissioner (PCC) elections. He says the death penalty has barely come up so far in the seven or eight months of campaigning, which is revealing in itself. It only had a real impact back in February, when – as he reported – a Leicester city councillor withdrew his pursuit of the Labour nomination after a blog pointed out he had previously supported the death penalty.

Ordinary coppers are more or less divided on the issue of whether they should be armed, Chapman – himself a former officer – says. Some don't want to be armed; others simply wouldn't be suitable. This poses challenges for the PCC candidates. "How they handle it may give some indication of how much they know about the debate," he says. Any ignorance of the multiplicity of views could indicate a lack of willingness to consult ordinary police. "Lots of coppers wouldn't want a firearm," Chapman says. "It changes the nature of the situation, it brings a gun into a situation that often doesn't have one in it."

What people shouldn't forget is that the issues raised by the murders in Tameside yesterday touch directly on the responsibilities of the commissioners. It's not just about defending the British model of policing – which is all about the police being of the public and the public being of the police – but it's also about relations with criminal justice issues. They are police commissioners, but they are crime commissioners, too, Chapman points out. "They may well have significant influence and a mandate with which to make their feelings known on issues that affect central government and require legislation."

 

11:15 – Searching for justice after an 'evil' double murder

It has now been 24 hours since witnesses in Tameside, Greater Manchester, heard the sound of gunshots and an explosion. Since then we have learned that Police Constables Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone, aged 23 and 32 respectively, lost their lives in an attack described as a "despicable act of pure evil" by prime minister David Cameron. The deaths of unarmed police officers have shocked the country. Now a debate has begun about how to provide justice.

Anyone who kills an officer should be hanged.

Those are the words of Paul Bone, the 64-year-old father of one of the victims. His comments have revived the debate about what we as a society should do with our most brutalised, monstrous criminals. Questions about bringing back the death penalty – or even whether we should arm our police officers – are being raised once again.

I'm spending the day talking to politicians, pundits, experts and academics to look at some of the broader issues and dilemmas the terrible events of yesterday have raised. From the global campaign to abolish the death penalty around the world, to the effect this debate will have on the dynamics of the coalition government, to the impact which public opinion will have on policymakers, and the upcoming police and crime commissioner elections – I'll be looking at what might be the end result of Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone's deaths.

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