Sunday, October 18, 2020

Why NOT to Bring Back Hanging

Zoë Sharp


This blog was sparked off by one written by my fellow Murder Is Everywhere blog-mate, Caro Ramsay, about Dr Harold Shipman. Shipman was a British doctor convicted in January 2000 of murdering fifteen of his patients, although the total number of victims is estimated at 250, making him the most prolific serial killer in modern times. Many of his patients were elderly—but by no means ill or infirm—with the oldest aged 93 and the youngest maybe a child of four.


Shipman was sentenced to life imprisonment with the recommendation that he was never to be released. At the time of his trial, there were plenty of calls for the doctor to be hanged for his crimes. In fact, he committed suicide by hanging and was found dead in his prison cell at Wakefield Prison less than four years later.


There were those who celebrated this news as being no more than he deserved. But, his death prevented the relatives of his victims and possible victims from gaining any kind of confirmation or reason for his crimes.


In Shipman’s case, the evidence against him—once it was investigated—was overwhelming but that has not always been the case in the judicial system in the UK. Sadly, miscarriages of justice have been going on for hundreds of years. Take the case of Joan Perry who, along with her two sons John and Richard, was convicted of killing wealthy William Harrison in Chipping Campden in 1660.


Despite the authorities’ failure to find Harrison’s body, the Perrys were convicted and hanged. Harrison reappeared two years later, claiming to have been abducted by pirates to explain his absence. The only good thing to come of this grave error was, it is reckoned, a reluctance by British courts to hand down sentences for murder unless the body of the victim was found.


In 1895, Adolf Beck was the victim of a notorious case of mistaken identity, combined with poor investigative methods and by the police rushing the case to court. A Norwegian by birth, Beck was accused of being con man John Smith, who specialised in impersonating the aristocracy in order to swindle ladies of their valuables and write dud cheques. He was found guilty at the Old Bailey, despite having been in South America at the time some of his alleged crimes were committed, and sent to Portland Convict Prison, where he was even given Smith’s prior convict number.


Beck was paroled in 1901 for good behaviour. Three years later, he was again arrested for being Smith, and again tried and convicted. It wasn’t until the real Smith was arrested while Beck awaited sentencing that the error came to light.


Beck was pardoned by King Edward VII and awarded compensation of £2000, later raised to £5000 after a public outcry orchestrated by a campaigning journalist. A Committee of Inquiry was established to investigate the shortfalls and this led directly to the formation of the Court of Criminal Appeal. The case is, apparently, still cited by judges as an example of how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be.


It was the Court of Criminal Appeal which overturned the death sentence handed down to William Herbert Wallace, an insurance agent from Liverpool, after he was convicted of the murder of his wife. This marked the first occasion a capital sentence was quashed.


During the last century, there were notable cases where people were convicted and hanged, only to be later cleared of all wrongdoing. In 1949, Timothy Evans initially confessed to the murder of his wife and young daughter. Although he later retracted this confession, he was convicted—partially on the evidence of his neighbour, John Christie.


Four years after Evans was hanged, Christie was exposed as a serial killer who had almost undoubtedly been responsible for the crimes for which Evans was executed. This case was influential in the eventual decision to abolish capital punishment in the UK.


In 1952, Derek Bentley was hanged for a crime he did not commit. Of reduced mental capacity, Bentley was with another man, Christopher Craig, carrying out a burglary when they were cornered by police. Craig apparently shot and killed a policeman but was underage so could not be executed. Bentley was hanged, despite the fact he had already been arrested when the fatal shot was fired, due to the legal principle of ‘joint enterprise’. After a long campaign, Bentley was pardoned in 1993, and his murder conviction finally quashed by the Court of Appeal in 1998.


In 1965, the death penalty was suspended and effectively abolished in England, Wales, and Scotland for capital murder, although it remained on the statute books for treason, piracy with violence, arson in Her Majesty’s dockyards, and military offences, until 1998. In fact, no executions had been carried out for any offences other than murder since 1946.


Northern Ireland was not covered under the 1965 Act and the death penalty for murder was not officially abolished there until 1973, although no executions had been carried out since that of Robert McGladdery for the murder of Pearl Gamble in 1961.


Whatever your feelings on capital punishment, it is worth bearing in mind the miscarriages of justice that have taken place in the UK since it was abolished here. A number of people have spent years incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. At one time they might have been hanged for them.


This includes the Birmingham Six—six Irishmen wrongly convicted for the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974, in which 21 people were killed and 182 injured. The Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven, all convicted for bombings during the mid-70s in Guildford and Woolwich. The convictions were quashed in 1989 and 1991 respectively.


Even a cursory search produces thirty instances of wrongful conviction for murder or murders which might possibly have led to execution. In one case, that of Sean Hodgson, he spent 27 years in prison before his innocence was finally established by advances in DNA evidence, and he was released by the Court of Appeal in 2009. Later the same year, new DNA evidence pointed to a man who committed suicide in 1988 as being the most likely killer.


One thing is certain. For capital punishment to be even close to acceptable, there has to be absolute integrity in the entire judicial system and one-hundred-percent accuracy in the collection, examination, and interpretation of the evidence. Which country on earth can boast that?


This week’s Word of the Week is gallows, from the Proto-Germanic word galgô, meaning a pole, rod, or tree branch. This possibly comes from early hangings when the person sentenced to die would be tied to a bent-down tree which was then released. Early Gothic Testaments refer to the cross of Christ as galga, before the Latin term crux, meaning cross, predominated.


  1. I shudder to think how many have been wrongly executed in the US with its grossly biased system of justice. In some jurisdictions, investigations are poorly executed by limited, poorly educated detectives, followed by convictions of convenience. The Innocence Project has exposed some of these cases, but just imagine how many never come to light.

    1. Hi Kwei. You make a good point, as ever. No country has the kind of infalible justice system that might make the death penalty, under any circumstances, foolproof. And it is usually the poorest and the worst educated who bear the brunt of injustice.

  2. ....and so many pro-life anti-abortionists are pro-death capital punishment supporters, and often pro-war hawks too. For the first time in many years, I have found an Evangelical who is asking tough questions of his parishioners about the inconsistencies of their beliefs in the sanctity of like, the relationship of abortion/no abortion to health care, etc. You can see him here interviewed by Christiane Amanpour:

    1. I wouldn't call him an "Evangelical," Stan, but Pope Francis adheres to the principals that Christiane Amanpour espouses, and then some. He includes mercy toward the poor, to feed and care for all human beings. I am an atheist, but I know a LOT about Christianity. Many of the loudest voices calling themselves Christians these days are fundamentally UN-Christian.

    2. We may complain about the NHS here in the UK, Stan, but during the pandemic it's been doing an utterly remarkable job under the most horrendous circumstances. It's horrifying to contemplate going through this without access to free healthcare.

    3. I am reminded, Annamaria, of this quote: "Going to church does not make you a Christian, any more than going to a garage makes you a car."

  3. What a great case you make, Zoe. I object to the death penalty on moral grounds. If taking a human life is wrong, not even the state should be allowed to do it. In fact, to me, it is even more unforgivable as a "legal" act of a government.

    1. Thanks, Annamaria. I agree, and we spend most of our particular working lives 'writing' those wrongs...

  4. With the Bible offering conflicting admonitions--"Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot," in some parts, and in another, "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written,"Vengeance is mine, I shall repay, says the Lord"--I do not believe the capital punishment debate will ever be finally resolved, but at best will lie dormant until resurrected in service to some political cause.