The death of the death penalty in the UK: 50 years on

At 8am on 13 August 1964 at Strangeways Prison in Manchester Gwynne Owen Evans was hanged by executioner Harry Allen for the murder of John Allan West. At the same time 30 miles away in Walton Prison, Liverpool Peter Anthony Allen was hanged by Robert Leslie Stewart, also for the murder of John Allan West. Evans and Allen were to be the last two men executed by the State in the United Kingdom. The Death Penalty was effectively abolished in 1965; however, remained an option until 1998 in cases of Treason and Piracy with violence.

Fifty years on there comes with each high profile murder, and indeed other cases which prove the public’s revulsion, calls to re-instate the death penalty in the UK. Only 50 years ago crowds were taking to the streets in protest at the death penalty. The death of the death penalty in the UK came about from a number of shocking miscarriages of justice in which innocent people were wrongly convicted and executed by the State.

One of those cases was that of Timothy Evans who was executed on 9 March 1950 for the murder of his wife and daughter. His neighbour, John Christie, was later executed for the murder of Evans’ daughter as well as the murder of a number of others, including Christie’s own wife. John Christie had been a witness at Evans trial for the prosecution, and almost certainly saw Evans be sent to the Gallows. On 19 November 2004 the Court of Appeal accepted the Evans did not murder either his wife or his child, but refused to quash his conviction on the basis that the cost and resources of quashing them could not be justified. The case caused public outrage and was one of a number of cases which saw Capital Punishment being confined to history in the UK.
There were other cases that saw the end of the death penalty in the UK, but the Evans case highlights perfectly the very real dangers of Capital Punishment. It is a non-reversible form of punishment; no quashing of the conviction and no financial compensation from the Government can ever rectify an execution. If an innocent man is executed; he is dead and remains dead even after the mistake is discovered. While imprisoning an innocent person can have some devastating effects on that individual, th every fact that they continue to breathe means that they can, when mistakes are uncovered, be released.

There have, of course, been some exceptionally high profile miscarriages of justice over the years. Hugh Callaghan, Patrick Joseph Hill, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power, John Walker, Paul Michael Hill, Gerard Conlan, Patrick Armstrong, Carole Richardson and Sam Hallam are all individuals who have been convicted of Murder, and whose convictions were overturned long after they would have been executed had Capital Punishment remained in the UK.

Of course, investigative techniques have moved along and advances in science have drastically changed the way in which the police investigate crimes. We have also moved on from the days where murder trials are over in a matter of a few short days, with these trials often lasting considerably longer than a week – sometimes even running into months. However, to argue that forensic science, such as DNA, helps prove who is guilty and who is not of murder in a lot of cases is to overstate the value of DNA evidence. DNA evidence is not, as some may thing, the golden bullet in a criminal trial. It cannot, and is unlikely to ever, prove conclusively that the accused is guilty of the crime libled. It helps to build the picture and along with other circumstantial evidence might be able to convince a jury to beyond reasonable doubt; however, as with all systems that involve humans there is room for error. When the end result is going to be the State depriving an individual of their life, there can be no room for error.

The case of Shirley McKie highlights the errors that can be made in examining forensic evidence. Shirley McKie, a form er Detective Constable, was accused of perjury after testifying at the Murder Trial of David Asbury for the murder of Marion Ross that she had not been in the house of Marion Ross, where she had been killed. A scandal erupted following the case and it resulted in changes being made to the comparison and verification of fingerprints in Scotland.

Regardless of whether you take the view that morally someone who takes the life of another should lose their own life or not, or whether you believe executing people is a deterrent to others; the very fact that there is a risk of the State executing an innocent person should be reason enough not to return to the days of capital punishment. Executing an innocent person deters no-body, it’s not justice and should never be considered an acceptable price to pay for executing people who really are guilty.