It was called the “Bloody Code”, and between 1688 and 1815 it was responsible for the deaths of thousands, for no more dastardly crime than stealing an article valued at twelve pence or more. In Britain, by the end of the 17th century, there were 220 offences on the statute book punishable by death.
Thankfully, the nation gradually grew more civilized. By 1861 only five offences carried the ultimate punishment: murder, piracy, espionage, high treason, and arson in a naval dockyard. While the latter may appear incongruous to us now, it should be remembered that the first iron clad warships didn’t appear until the middle of the nineteenth century. Prior to this, fire in a naval dockyard could prove disastrous for the fleet.
Thankfully, by the end of the 1960’s, capital punishment had been all but abolished in the UK (though it wasn’t until 1971 that ‘arson in a naval dockyard’ was no longer legally punishable by death). While no executions took place in the UK after 1964, it was only in 2004 that its government finally acceded to the 13th Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibited the death penalty outright. Europe, and the United Kingdom, finally became civilized.
Whether it was the effects of the civilian bombings on British cities during World War II, or for some other more nebulous reason, the British people in general appear to hold a more humane attitude to the taking of ‘a life for a life’, than is the case with their American counterparts across the Atlantic. Of course, it took some hundreds of years for the death penalty in Britain to be finally abolished, and it must be noted that some sections of the UK citizenry still exert pressure for its reintroduction. Their demands are usually most vociferous following a particularly nasty murder, often involving a child or children. Fortunately, to date, their voices have generally gone unheeded.
Media presentation is exceedingly influential in defining how the public respond to high-profile trials. Allowing television in court rooms is perhaps one of the most scandalous decisions ever taken in this area. How a jury can possibly make an unbiased decision as to the guilt or otherwise of the defendant, given the media hype surrounding some high-profile trials, is highly questionable. In the United States, certain television channels devote much of their run-time to arguing the guilt or innocence of defendants both before and during a trial, some of which can go on for weeks, if not months.
By the time a jury retires to consider its verdict, the whole nation has taken sides and the process of determining whether a defendant should forfeit his life reduced to nothing more than entertainment value. Numerous interviews with friends and relatives of the victim(s), who frequently give vent to hysterics, and screams for vengeance, whip up audiences to even greater frenzy. Seldom, if ever, do we hear from the family of the accused.
Frankly, even though we’re more advanced technologically, the process is reminiscent of the entertainment for the masses provided by 18th century hangings at Tyburn in England, or the guillotining of aristocrats in Paris, France, during the revolution.
Until 1981, under British law, ‘sub judice’ prevented the reporting of, or commenting on, any case once the defendant had been arrested. This has now been superseded by the 1981 Contempt of Court Act, which serves a similar purpose.
Owing to the somewhat ridiculously adhered to First Amendment right of ‘freedom of speech’, such is not the case in the USA. Consequently, jurors and courts are open to all types of prejudicial bombardment from outside influences, and the chances of the defendant receiving a fair trial are drastically reduced. Public opinion is egregiously swayed by continuous media discussions, often involving so-called ‘experts’ of dubious qualification, and the whole process becomes nothing more than a media circus.
Under such circumstances the possibility of an incorrect verdict, resulting in an innocent person being found guilty, is vastly increased. Consequently, it’s safe to assume a percentage of prisoners on ‘death row’ are innocent of the crimes they’ve been found guilty of committing.
It’s a common argument, from those who still advocate its use, that the death penalty is a deterrent to violent crime. It was George Savile, 1st Marquess of Halifax…
…who, in the mid-17th century, remarked:
Men are not hang’d for stealing horses, but that horses may not be stolen.”
He was wrong then, just as those who advocate its deterrent effects are wrong today. The threat of any punishment does not deter the ardent criminal. At the time of the offence he believes he will not be caught.
As I read this week of the agonizing death of Dennis McGuire, executed in Ohio, or the execution of Edgar Tamayo, a Mexican, in Texas -illegally under international law- I am forced to the belief that this great superpower, with its grip around the throat of the world, has yet to learn the meaning of ‘civilization’.
It’s not that I hold much sympathy for the executed. Often the crimes they committed and the atrocities they performed caused far greater trauma to their victims. My concern is for the frightening lack of humanity on display in this country, and volubly applauded by the media. It’s easy to forget that executions are carried out on our behalf. We cannot remove ourselves from the responsibility simply because we’re not the ones tightening the straps, raising the vein, inserting the needle.
Read the reports of journalists allowed access to men on death row, and virtually without exception the reporter writes of a strong realization that these men are real human beings. However callous, cruel, or cold-blooded the crime, it pays to remind ourselves the perpetrator was somebody’s son, father, uncle or nephew.
Before joining Fox News, or CNN, in applauding the execution of yet another long-term inmate of the death cell, it may be as well to remember: it’s not what capital punishment imposes on the criminal so much, as the un-civilizing effect it inflicts on those responsible for imposing it.
 “Row over ‘agonising’ Ohio execution of killer Denis McGuire” BBC, January 17th 2014
 “Texas executes Mexican Edgar Tamayo, despite protests” BBC, January 22nd 2014