Monday, 30 November 2009

Choose Life

Ludovic Kenndy was wrong about a very great deal. But not about the cause on which that true conservative, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, pays tribute to him:

In Oxford today a memorial service is taking place for Sir Ludovic Kennedy. He died at 89 after a remarkable life – a naval officer who witnessed the sinking of the Bismarck, a television journalist, a prolific author – but he will be remembered above all for his passionate commitment to justice, and the need to right the worst injustices of all, the execution of men falsely convicted.

Although Ludo Kennedy might not have been surprised, he would have been contemptuous of people in the Tory party and press who now demand the restoration of capital punishment, and do so in a way which suggests complete ignorance of his life's work. We evidently have a generation of reactionaries too young to remember it, and too dogmatic to grasp elementary facts.

Almost the first thing Kennedy wrote was Murder Story, a play about the Craig-Bentley case. One of our nostalgists for the noose recently referred to this case, deriding the way "the last Tory government posthumously pardoned Derek Bentley ... even though ... he was given a perfectly fair trial". For a single sentence, this is a veritable compendium of error.

In November 1952, Bentley and Christopher Craig, two teenage petty criminals armed with a pistol, were discovered breaking into a warehouse in Croydon, and Craig shot a policeman. The two were tried, convicted, and sentenced by Lord Goddard, the lord chief justice. While Craig at 16 was too young to be executed, the 19-year-old Bentley was hanged in January as an accessory.

This required a very tenuous interpretation of the law after a shockingly misconducted trial. Apart from the fact that Bentley had a mental age of 10, he had been under arrest for several minutes when the shot was fired. Goddard refused to allow defence counsel to tell the jury they could convict for manslaughter instead of murder, or let him add his own plea for mercy to that which the jury did make.

It was not a government pardon. The case was one of the first referred by the criminal cases review commission to the court of appeal. In July 1998 (under Labour, not Tories) the court quashed the conviction as a patent miscarriage of justice. Lord Bingham spoke remarkably strong words about his predecessor. Goddard's summing up had been "a highly rhetorical and strongly worded denunciation of both defendants and of their defences. The language used was not that of a judge but of an advocate (and it contrasted strongly with the appropriately restrained language of prosecuting counsel)."

Then in 1961, Kennedy's famous book Ten Rillington Place showed Timothy Evans had been wrongly convicted and hanged in 1949 for murdering his infant daughter, a crime in fact committed by John Christie. Even though Christie was subsequently tried and hanged, a campaign to secure a pardon for Evans was brushed aside by successive home secretaries, although they could only do so by insisting that two men had murdered the same person on separate occasions.

In the end, justice was done, even if it came a little late. The heroes were Labour home secretaries of a happier vintage than we have seen recently. Roy Jenkins granted a posthumous free pardon in 1966 after, more admirably still, a conscience-stricken Lord Chuter Ede had joined the campaign (although as the home secretary who had approved the execution he had less to gain than anyone from reopening the case).

Our hang 'em high brigade might argue, as an 18th-century judge did, that even a man executed for a crime he hadn't committed could be said "to have died for his country" by inspiring terror in criminals. But most of us regard the fact that no innocent man has been hanged in this country for 45 years as something to be grateful for, and something we owe in no small part to Ludo Kennedy: a good deed by a good man.

Capital punishment is, with nuclear weapons, one of the two ultimate expressions of statism as idolatry. No wonder that Enoch Powell was against both of them.

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