Sunday 28 January 2024

A Dead Issue

I have met the kind of people who could devise something like execution by suffocation with nitrogen gas. I have lived at very close quarters with them. The only thing that could horrify me more than their being anywhere near public policy in the United States would be if they were anywhere near public policy in the United Kingdom.

Anyone who could invent such a procedure is capable of anything that had ever been done by any of my old wingmates, and that was often far in excess of anything of which he had ever been convicted. As I understand it, you do not go to Holme House for murder, or with that on your record. But there were murderers in there. I have spent 23 hours of the day locked up with some of them.

The restoration of capital punishment would effectively decriminalise murder. Even if the legislation provided for it, then no judge could conceivably accept a majority verdict in a capital trial. In the Britain of the twenty-first century, there would always be at least one of 12 randomly assembled members of the general public who would vote to acquit anyone rather than risk the imposition of the death penalty. In fact, there would always be at least two or three. Those who wanted to bring back what they saw as higher qualifications for jurors would, if anything, increase that number.

If there were never any realistic possibility of a conviction for murder, then no one would ever be charged with it. Instead, ways would be found of convicting murderers of manslaughter, resentment of the injustice of which we have seen in Nottingham in recent days. So convicted, they would almost certainly be released earlier than if their records were of intentional homicide. Britain would become a very much more dangerous place.

In any case, who among the kind of people who became judges in today's Britain would ever impose the death penalty? Who among the kind of people who became prosecutors in today's Britain would ever seek its imposition, or chance that by bringing a charge of murder? Even if there were a high likelihood of conviction. Indeed, especially so, on principle. Elect them, you say? Well, Members of Parliament are elected, and they rejected capital punishment by 403 votes to 159 the last time that the House of Commons divided on it at all. Under a Conservative Government. 30 years ago next month.


  1. No such problems manifest themselves in the US. Someone would only be convicted of murder and sentenced to capital punishment if the evidence was overwhelming so that the jury had to convict, or risk turning a killer out onto the streets to kill again.
    Anyone who preferred freeing a murderer to kill again over convicting them with the possibility of execution would be a very strange person indeed.

    Peter Hitchens is right to say hanging is more humane than nitrogen though.

    1. Britain is not the United States, a point that people like you are often keen to make. Nor is Britain today the Britain that existed before suspension in 1965 or abolition in 1969.

      12 out of 12, or even 10 out of 12, people in Britain today would simply never vote to risk sentencing anyone to the death penalty, even though no judge would ever impose it.

      With no realistic possibility of a conviction, then no one would ever be charged with murder, and Britain would become a much more dangerous place.

  2. Most people in Britain support capital punishment (unsurprisingly given the high rate of knife crime). Judges have to follow sentencing guidelines and juries are required to pledge to convict or acquit solely based on the evidence-any that didn’t would be replaced amidst public outrage.

    1. Sentencing guidelines would never say "mandatory death", and no one knows what goes on in a jury room, never mind in a juror's head.

      There is no chance of an Appellate Court's ordering an execution over the head of the trial judge. You have only to say that for it to be obvious.

      One in 12. Eight per cent. Capital punishment does not have 92 per cent public support.

  3. Polls show the death penalty continues to command majority public support here as in the United States ( And most jurors, regardless of their personal views, would obey the law and convict or acquit on the evidence. Among the minority who oppose the death penalty there may be someone, somewhere, who loves serial killers so much they'd sooner botch a trial and release them to kill more innocent people than risk executing them.

    But such people are very weird, and thankfully very few.

    1. No, that is all opponents of capital punishment, at least in countries where it would need to be brought back. None of us would ever vote to convict anyone if it ran the risk of that. And no one would ever know.