Tuesday 5 April 2011

D is for Death Penalty

Anyone who follows this blog may already be aware of my feelings about the death penalty. Ever since childhood (yes. I'm that old) when the death penalty was still used in England, I have had a total abhorrence of any form of judicial killing. As a little girl, I used to watch the hands of the clock as they crawled towards 9am (I think it was 9) when the hanging would take place, feeling full of dread. After the appointed hour, I would feel relief. At least it was all over; for the prisoner, his family and his friends (because of course, this of all punishments punishes many more than the prisoner himself). So many of those who were hanged during my childhood have since been "pardoned" (such an odd word to use), including poor, mentally challenged Derek Bentley, whose crime was to say to his accomplice "let him have it". To this day, no-one knows whether he meant it metaphorically (ie shoot the policeman who was challenging them ) or give him the gun. Bentley didn't even carry out the murder himself. The actual killer was too young to face the death penalty.

As I have mentioned before I correspond with a prisoner on Death Row in a US state. He is also a D. I have grown fond of him over the years we have been writing to each other (and having read about his court case, I think he may well be innocent). He is poor, comes from a very large family, and (probably; his letters are heavily censored) unable to pay for the services of a good lawyer. Two of his friends have recently had their sentences commuted to life after 30 - yes THIRTY - years on death row. Another, who had become a close friend, was executed a year ago, and D is still trying to come to terms with that. They are a close-knit bunch, as they are not allowed to mix with the other prisoners. D has a daughter although I don't think he sees her. He said in his last letter "I miss her every day. I try to keep my mind numb and try not to think about home all the time, but it is hard not to."

I'll bet it is.

(I'd better add that it goes without saying the murder is a wicked crime, and that life should often mean just that. We are sometimes too lenient in the UK. But I have never felt that the death penalty solves anything, and I strongly believe that everyone should be offered the opportunity for redemption.)


  1. I have mixed feelings on the Death penalty, I well remember the 10 Rillington Place murders and Derek Bentley saying those infamous words, also Ruth Ellis the last woman to be hung, but if a person has been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and the circumstances of the murder horrendous I think he/she should be hung or whatever, What about the innocent victim there is no redemption for him/her, life cut short my a mindless person,
    But if there is a reasonable doubt then life and I mean life should be the answer.

    A good issue which many people will agree or disagree it's all down to the individual I guess.


  2. What does the death penalty actually say? 'It's wrong to kill people so, as you've done it, we're going to kill you.'

    On this basis, if our child hits us, we hit him back. It's not justice, it's pure retribution. And, as the experience in the US proves, it is most definitely not a deterrent.

    That we're still doing this to people in the 21st century is utterly beyond me and just shows how much of a sham modern 'civilised' society actually is.

  3. We'll have to agree to differ, Yvonne! But thank you for putting the other point of view.

    Alis, I'm glad you agree. I have a feeling that the death penalty is being phased out in the US, state by state. They are begining to decide that it's just too expensive because of all the appeals and re-trials. I had a long letter from D this morning (after I'd written my post), saying just this, and also describing in detail for the first time how he was interrogated (he was high on drugs) and why he finally admitted to the murder. His letters are very entertaining, and full of humour, despite his situation. In fact, in this age of emails and mobiles, he's about the only person who still writes me proper letters!

  4. Excellent post Frances. I didn't know that you wrote to an inmate on death row and I found the whole thing fascinating. Sometimes when we hear about a really horrible crime especially those against children I sometimes think that "hanging;s to good for them" but in reality, like Alis said, if we look at the American experience it clearly isn't a deterrent and at the end of the day I'm not sure that its the right thing to do and with something as serious as this you have to be sure

  5. Thanks for that, Colette. I know there are arguments on both sides, but for me there's never been any question that the cold-blooded killing of a human being - any human being - is wrong. Which doesn't mean to say that I'm not as disgusted/appalled as the next person by some of the heinous crimes that take place.

    Incidentally, there is an ongoing need for people to correspond with death row inmates, and they often have no visitors and no-one else who writes to them. The organisiation I contacted was Lifelines, in case anyone is interested. They are very helpful and supportive.

  6. This issue confounds me, I'll admit it. On the one hand, I am strongly in favor of offering the chance at redemption and change. I hate the idea of anyone dying, even a person I find despicable or even evil.

    On the other hand, I'm not sure sure what is the rate of the redemption and change among life prisoners either.

    Is the death penalty an deterrent? I wish I knew. My gut instinct is, "Clearly not." On the other hand, I've spoken with criminals who bank on the appeals process, the length of time, and changing social moods to keep them alive. In 2010, there were fewer than 40 executions. In 2010, there were also over 3,300 people on death row.

    I'm not sure any penalty can be a deterrent if it is delayed and uncertain.

    That said, I'm also not sure that anyone who commits heinous acts of murder is performing a rational cost-benefits analysis. So even if it the death sentences were carried out swiftly and certainly, I'm uncertain that it would be a deterrent.

    I'm not really offering an opinion here, Frances, because I don't think I have one yet. But I appreciate your thoughtful and considerate post and I wanted to respond in kind by at least sharing some of the on-going thoughts in my own head on the topic.

  7. Thank you, Nevets, for taking the time to reply at length and with so much thought. I know this is a difficult one, with many shades of opinion. Pehaps I'm fortunate in that on this (and I think that it's the only issue about which I can say this) I actually see the issue in clear black and white!