The death penalty "is one of the most compelling and vexing issues of our time"1 and has been subject to controversy in regards to implementation, costs, miscarriage of justice and its abolishment. Death as a punishment has been an inherent part of British history from almost the beginning of time. However, the evolving standards of decency in this modern age means the death penalty is becoming increasingly incompatible with society's morals. Executions by governmental bodies should have no place in a civilised society.
L. J Blackburn commented: -"Nothing could be more contrary to contemporary standards of decency or more shocking to the conscience than to execute a person who innocent. "2 In the U. K the death penalty was suspended in 19653 for five years for all crimes except piracy and treason but was entirely abolished via removal from the statute book in 1998, when a 158 majority4 of MP's voted to adopt the ECHR provisions, 5 meaning capital punishment was outlawed. The last death penalty carried out in the UK was the hanging of Peter Allen, on the 13th August 1964, for murder. 6
Some would argue that there are social benefits of capital punishment as it prevents crimes from being repeated since the criminal is murdered. However, this, and the argument that it deters criminals from committing crimes are not factually supported. Any type of punishment can act as an effective deterrent if only it is promptly and consistently employed. Capital punishment cannot meet these conditions. Very few first degree murderers are sentenced to death and the option projected in 1976 to enact a mandatory death sentence for all murderers was ruled as unconstitutional.
7 If a criminal premeditates a murder, he will concentrate on avoiding arrest and conviction; therefore the threat of the most severe punishment will not deter them. The majority of capital crimes are committed in moments of immense emotional stress or under the influence of drugs etc. ; arguably at a time when irrational thoughts rule supreme over logical thought processes. To impose the death penalty for this reason would be senseless as these people would disregard the consequences. Opponents of the death penalty would argue the death penalty is justified by retributive justice.
Who is to say that death is a fair punishment for past actions? I dispute that these retributive theories are not fully satisfactory in establishing whether the death penalty is morally acceptable. Bedeu enunciated "[R]etributive considerations may be sufficient to tell us who deserves to be punished – it is the guilty. But retribution fails to tell us what they deserve as their punishment. "8 Who are we as governmental bodies to act as God, holding the power to take away life as we please?
One of the most compelling arguments against the death penalty is its cost. In California, taxpayers spent $4 billion since the death penalty was re-instated in 1978 to fund capital punishment which has only carried out 13 executions since. 9 The backlog of cases became so severe that the majority of the 714 prisoners on death row in California will have to wait twenty years before their cases are resolved, 10 as the average wait for execution is 17. 2 years, double the national figure. 11 For four years, the inmates simply have to wait the appointment of counsel.
If both conviction and sentence are affirmed, they have to wait three years before state counsel is appointed, usually finding that the Legislature have not provided sufficient funds to allow the counsel to conduct adequate investigations into the merits of their claims. 12 This has gone to create America's largest death row. How can one say that this extraordinary amount of time and money spent is justified in killing just thirteen people in the past thirty-four years?
The Commission13 argues: – "[T]he failures in the administration of California's death penalty law create cynicism and disrespect for the rule of law… weakens any possible deterrent benefits of capital punishment… increases the emotional trauma experienced by murder victims' families and delays the resolution of meritorious capital appeals. "14 They found that abolishing and replacing it with a system that imposes a sentence of life without parole for those now on death row would reduce the costs in California from $137. 7 to $11. 5 million per year. 15 The real cost derives from court review expenses, which vary due to the contrasting resources of the convicted.
The only way to decrease these costs would be to weaken the due process and reduce appellate review, both of which are the defendant's only source of protection against a possible miscarriage of justice. The saving in money would be at the cost of justice. As it was once stated: – "The death penalty is not now, nor has it ever been, a more economical alternative to life imprisonment. "16 Is this cost really justification for re-instating it in the UK in this time of austerity, when the UK's GDP contracted by 0. 2 per cent in the first quarter of 2012 as Britain plunged into its first double-dip recession since 1975?
It would be asinine not to mention the fact regarding chances of innocence has become the most salient reason in eliminating the death penalty. One scholar noted, "The prospect of killing an innocent person seemed to be the one thing that could cause people to re-think their support for capital punishment"18 and even Bandes affirmed wrongful convictions have propelled "… the most successful death penalty reform movement of our lifetime. "19 It was not until 1989, that Dotson became the first American to be cleared post-conviction of rape due to the emergence of new DNA evidence.
Where DNA evidence is used, there is no guarantee of its accuracy as it has been subject to error and misinterpretation in the past. Employees of the Houston Police Department's Crime Laboratory fabricated DNA evidence and even lied in court regarding results. After investigations, it was exposed that in forty-three DNA cases there was "significant doubts about reliability of work performed, the validity of the Crime Lab's analytical results, or the correctness of the analyst's reported conclusions.
"20 If DNA results cannot be relied upon, how could the death penalty be re-introduced with the knowledge that no-one will be executed who was later proved innocent? If the highest members in government are prone to recklessly endangering the accuracy and reliability of work, then our nation should not feel obliged to trust them in administering justice or avenging in a justifiable manner. How can one prove that the DNA evidence found on a victim's body came from the alleged murderer from a DNA match? It could have been placed innocently at a different time or by a third party. Perhaps the DNA was maliciously planted there.
In cases where more than one set of DNA results are discovered, the evidence may be construed to explain more than one version of events, leading to interpretive flexibility, where authorities make judgements upon whether these ambiguous results should be treated as fact. This occurrence could risk a person being wrongfully convicted. If, in the UK, we have bodies and functions such as the Ombudsman to critically scrutinize our government for any wrong-doings, how then would it be legal for the government to murder when they forbid society at large from committing such an immoral offence?