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Since hundreds of years, people all over the world have debated over the moral authority of a state to practice capital punishment or the act of executing criminals after a trial finds them guilty of committing various crimes. The questions most often asked were whether a state, whose first duty is to protect the individual rights of its citizens, actually possesses a moral authority to take somebody's life, if so, what special conditions should be present to justify taking somebody's life. According to the data released by Amnesty International, capital punishment was considered legal in more than 50 countries in 2009, but it was not being used in many of them. Even so, in these countries, only some crimes - referred to as capital crimes can be punished with capital punishment, among them murder, rape, treason, and some major cases of fraud (BBC).
This was not the situation, in England when death was being used as punishment for crimes during the early years. As a matter of fact, when Henry VIII was king of England it has been calculated that around 72,000 people were sent to their death including his wives Ann Boleyn and Katherine Howard. The reason was that during that time in England, the "bloody code" enforced punishment for more than 200 crimes. Those ones found guilty of these crimes were either beheaded, or were burned at the stake, or were killed by hanging. William Fitz Osbern was the first victim recorded of this type of punishment. The execution was made in a small village near the borders of Middlesex in 1196. Personal crimes like murder and robbery were punishable with death, and even acts like the "blacking of the face" to disguise one's appearance before doing a small crime, or going around with gypsies for at least a month, could be punished with death (Osborne 2009).
Fortunately, many death sentences, especially those given for small crimes, were cancelled later. There were also cases where the actual executions of the criminals were delayed. A sentence of death could be delayed because of several reasons. The first of these reasons was an "official pardon" was granted to the criminal. When the criminal was a woman, the execution could also be delayed if she was having a pregnancy. In fact, out of the estimated 35,000 death sentences which were given during the time from 1770 and 1830, only about 7,000 convicts were actually sent to their deaths (Osborne 2009).
Judicial reforms concerning the death penalty started taking place in the United Kingdom during the 1800s when Sir Samuel Romilly had worked for the removal of the death penalty as a punishment for minor offenses such as "pick pocketing" in 1808. It was followed by the enactment of the Judgment of Death Act in 1823. With this Act, the penalty of death imposed on any crime except treason and murder could be commuted by the judges. By 1868, the public hanging of death convicts was no more allowed when the Capital Punishment Act was amended and by 1870, treason was no longer punished with "beheading and quartering." Seven-year-old children who were thought to be allowed for the death penalty before were finally spared from capital punishment when the Children's Act of 1908 was created which made the age of 16 years as the minimum age qualification for the death penalty. The minimum age requirement was again raised to 18 with the passage of the Children and Young Persons Act in 1930 and by 1931, death by hanging was no more allowed for pregnant convicts (Osborne 2009).
In 1949, James Chuter-Ede, who was the Home Secretary in that time, created the Royal Commission of Capital Punishment which existed until 1953. One of the ideas which the commission considered was cutting the number of types of crimes that would be punished with the death penalty. Another was to look for a different method of execution that would replace hanging. With regards the method of execution, the commission recommended the use of lethal injection. However, the British Medical Association proposed a very strong opposition against the suggestion on the ground that the Hippocratic Oath would be violated by doctors who would be doing the executions. At the end, the commission did not speak for or against capital punishment. In its final report, it merely recommended the retention of capital punishment unless the British public unanimously called for its abolition (Osborne 2009).
In 1957, the five types of murder that would be punishable with capital punishment were written by the Homicide Act. The first of these categories was the act of killing while a robbery is in progress. The second was a killing which was perpetrated by the use of a firearm or caused by an explosion. The act of a person who kills another while in the process of resisting arrest or who kills while escaping from authorities was also considered a capital offense, therefore punishable with the capital punishment. The fourth and fifth categories were the murders of police officers and prison officials by prison inmates, respectively (Osborne 2009).
In 1965, Sydney Silverman, a member of the House of Commons from the Labour Party and an advocate of the abolition of the death penalty presented a "Private Member's Bill" which tried to suspend the implementation of the death penalty. The bill was subsequently approved in House of Commons with 200 MPs voting for it also 98 MPs voting against it. It was also adopted at the House of Lords with voting 204-104 for the bill. The result was the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act. Therefore, except for Northern Ireland, capital punishment was held for five years in the United Kingdom because of the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act of 1965. When the Act in 1969 up for renewal, both of the House of Commons and the House of Lords approved the proposal made by then Home Secretary James Callaghan to make the Murder Act permanent. Therefore, from the 18 December 1969 the suspension of death penalty acquired a permanent status in England, Wales and Scotland. By 1973, capital punishment was also abolished in Northern Ireland because of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Powers) Act (Knowledgerush).
Although it was removed, however, the death penalty was still "on the statute books" for some crimes until its official removal at later dates. The crimes and the dates of removal of the death penalty from the statute books are written on the table below.
Specific crimes punishable with death
Dates of removal
"Causing a fire or explosion in the navel dockyard, ship
Magazine or warehouse"
"Piracy with violence"
"Certain purely military offences under the jurisdiction of the armed forces, such as mutiny. Prior to its complete abolition in 1998, it was available for six offences: 1) serious misconduct in action, 2) assisting the enemy, 3) obstructing operations, 4) giving false air signals, 5)mutiny or incitement to mutiny, and 6) failure to suppress a mutiny with intent to assist the enemy"
1998(Source: Osborne 2009)
The removal from the "statute books" of death penalty as punishment for "piracy with violence" and treason was result of an amendment to the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act which was introduced in the House of Lords. In the meantime, the removal of death penalty in connection with crimes which fell under the jurisdiction of armed forces was a consequence of the enforcement of the Human Rights Act in November 1998. On the other hand, capital punishment for the crime of murder became illegal as a result of May 20, 1998 decision of the House of Commons to implement the "6th Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights." Finally, death penalty was abolished in all United Kingdom effective May 20, 1999 because of the ratification of the "European Convention on Human Rights Act (Knowledgerush).
In the country Wales, the latest victim of execution was Vivian Teed. The execution took place at Swansea Prison in May 6, 1958. The murder took place also in Swansea and the victim was William Williams, a tobacconist as well as "sub-postmaster" who was 73 years old at the time of the incident. He died from hammer blows which fractured his skull. Meanwhile, the last hanging in Northern Ireland was also involved a convicted murderer Robert McGladdery. He was accused of stabbing and strangling to death nineteen years old Pearl Gamble, who was a shop assistant. Robert McGladdery was hanged in Belfast in 20 December, 1961. In the country Scotland, on the other hand, the last death by hanging occurred on August 15, 1963 in Aberdeen. Hanged at Craiginches Prison was Henry Burnett, for a case of murder. The victim, Thomas Guyan, was a seaman who died from a gunshot wound on the face. The case has been classified as a domestic dispute because Henry Burnett was the boyfriend of Thomas Guyan's wife. Meanwhile, the last hanging in the country Northern Ireland was also involved a convicted murderer Robert McGladdery. He was accused of stabbing and strangling to death nineteen years old Pearl Gamble, a shop assistant. McGladdery was hanged in Belfast on 20 December, 1961 (Graham 2009).
The last death penalty which was carried out in England on August 13, 1964 was also proved to be the last execution in the whole of United Kingdom. There were actually two executions which were held simultaneously for the same murder case. One was at Strangeways Prison situated in Manchester and the other was at Walton Prison situated in Liverpool. Gwynne Owen Evans was executed in Manchester when Peter Anthony Allen was hanged in Liverpool. The two men were sentenced to death by hanging for the murder of Alan West in April 1964. The victim was a 53-year-old resident of Workington in Cumberland, was employed as a driver of a laundry van when the incident occurred. In addition to be stabbed in the chest, Mr. West had as well severe injuries in his head. After these simultaneous hangings in England, death penalty was still being meted out as punishment for murder. For example, one David Chapman, accused of murder in England was meted out with the death penalty in November 1965. Another case was that of William Holden, convicted of having murdered a soldier in 1973 in Northern Ireland was also sentenced to death. However, both men were able to escape death when they were reprieved (Graham 2009).
What do the advocates and opponents say about capital punishment? One of the arguments in favor of capital punishment is the moral idea of retribution. According with this ideas, people who are found guilty of committing murders deserved to be punished with death because death is the only punishment which is the same to their crime as far as severeness is concerned. However, opponents of capital punishment argue that instead of retribution, death penalty is, in fact, an act of vengeance. Therefore, they keep saying that it could never be a valid moral concept (BBC).
Another argument being used to support capital punishment is the concept of deterrence. According to its advocates sending convicted murderers to their death has the effect of deterring "would-be murderers" from committing the same act. Its opponents, however, argue that this claim has no ground so far because the deterrent effect of capital punishment has not so far been proven by statistical evidences. Secondly, deterrence might not be right in the ones who are forced by some mental defects to commit murder. A third reason for the ineffectiveness of deterrence, according to its opponents, is because some murders are crimes of passion. In other words, the criminals of the crime are "in such an emotional state" that blinds them from thinking about the consequences of their behaviour. At the time of the committing the crime, they do not care what happens to them after the crime. So, how could the concept of deterrence work on such people? Under such circumstances, therefore, deterrence is totally out of the equation (BBC).
In his way, Cardinal Avery Dulles expressed that death penalty could only serve as a deterrent if it is done in public and in such a way as to be humiliating aside from being a painful method. Unfortunately, according to him, this is not the situation with the way capital punishment is presently being done. Specifically, he said that
...In our day death is usually administered in private by relatively painless means, such as injections of drugs, and to that extent it may be less effective as a deterrent. Sociological evidence on the deterrent effect of the death penalty as currently practiced is ambiguous, conflicting, and far from probative (BBC).
He was, nevertheless, contradicted by John McAdams from the Department of Political Science in Marquette University who said that
If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call (BBC).
At the end, it appears that people think capital punishment according to their individual sense of justice. No code of ethics has proven binding enough. In fact, Christians are citing different passages in the Holy Bible to argue for and against death penalty. For instance, the ones who support capital punishment are quoting Genesis 9:6: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed." Opponents of capital punishment, on the other hand, claim that "Thou shalt not kill" is a commandment which has no exceptions, capital punishment included (BBC)).