If you believe sources up to and including 2003 anything up to 77% of Britons would support the re-introduction of the death penalty which was abolished here in 1965. I leave 2003 as a qualifier because whilst one might think that in the onslaught on human rights perpetrated by the New Labour government over the last few years many people might be thinking twice about such a policy, in fact I suspect with so many being hoodwinked about the War on Terror and so eager to allow the death sentences on soldiers thousands of miles away the number now may be even higher.

The arguments in favour of capital punishment are fairly unchanging, usually that the person is a monster and those responsible for severe crimes such as serial murder mutilation, sexual assault, killing children can have no mercy shown to them as they have not shown mercy to their victims. There is the beleif that people who commit crimes of a certain nature deserve to have the ultimate sentence passed on them because they can have no part in society. It is said that the death penalty is a deterrent to show strength of resolve to those who may contemplate the most grievous of crimes.

Whilst the arguements for may be presented most often the rebuttals or a full examination of these arguments to determine whether they hold any weight is not given as much airtime.

The issue of prevention is certainly not proven, there are still many more murders in US than many countries w/out death penalty, this is not due simply to the high percentage of gun ownership in the US because proportionally Canada has a similar ratio per capita and yet the murder rate is negligible by comparison in spite of there being no capital punishment. Those who see this as a cure to the evils of a section of society are deluding themselves it is yet another example of the modern abdication of responsibility which is becoming so synonymous with our Western society to make it almost indistinguishable from the norm now. Whose right is it to call time on the prospects for rehabilitation of an individual? Are we really therefore bound into acceptance of the moral premise that people can be intrinsically evil? I’m afraid I simply do not believe this, humans are born with predilictions but their character is not pre-determined and therefore they are a product of their environment because it is this that shapes how behavioural traits which may be inherent manifest themselves in later life.

There is little doubt that the increasing violent nature of stimuli around us has produced more violent crime and less respect for ones fellow human, no doubting that poverty coupled with avarice increases muggings and burglary. I think it is pretty obvious that the over-sexualisation of children reduces the desire to nurture. So if it is a series of societal forces that often shape the path we take does society not have to take some responsibility if the direction appears to be going seriosly awry?

The biggest question of all which I have never heard satisfactorily resolved or even cogently argued against is who passes judgement on the state if the state gets it wrong? And it will get it wrong, there is an inevitabilty about that, in this country alone we have seen many high-profile cases of rectifiction of miscarriages of justice decades after sentencing. In the case of the Birmingham 6 who were wrongly imprisoned in the 1970s the judge said in his summing up that it was a pity the death sentence had been repealed for he would have had no hesitation in passing it upon them. How lucky for the judge that he did not have that on his conscience 20 odd years later when the full nature of the cover up and flimsyness of evidence waqs revealed. Guiseppe Conlan died in jail and the others were robbed of the most productive years of their lives, that is bad enough, had they been executed there would have been no possibility for the state to begin to atone. It is rare that I agree wholeheartedly with the Vatican but Cardinal Renato Martino, Vatican Justice and Peace Department sums it up succinctly: “This is terrible because you know the death penalty is a penalty where there is no alternative, there is no possibility for the human being who happens to be a criminal – to be corrected, to reform, to become a good citizen. With the death penalty you don’t give that alternative and that is not taking into account the many, many mistakes and errors, judicial errors that we discover from time to time were committed and innocent people were executed.”

There are plenty of examples where we know full well that this has been the case and others where there is sufficient doubt such as in the case of Derek Bentley who was hanged in Britain in 1953 despite even at his trial there being serious doubts as to the semantic inference of words he uttered at the scene of the crime. Bentley was not the man who pulled the trigger, but there was the school of thought that his words “Let him have it Chris” to his co-conspirator were incitement to murder and not in response to the policeman’s request to the 2 men that the gun be handed over. One has to remember that in 1953 gun crime was comparitively rare in this country and the killing of a “friendly bobby” was regarded as one of the big taboos. The actual killer of PC, Chris Craig was a minor and therefore unable to stand trial for murder full-scale, Bentley however was 19 and provided a useful scapegoat for the public outcry and police anger at the death of one of their own. It is widely acknowledged now that the case against Derek Bentley had serious flaws and his execution was a serious miscarriage of justice. Furthermore Bentley would have been regarded now as potentially mentally unfit for the death penalty. On the 30th July 1998 the British Court of Appeal quashed Derek Bentley’s original conviction and 1 year later the Home Office agreed to compensate the Bentley family some 46 years after his death. For the family of course compensation is something of a hollow gesture in response to the loss of life.

In the recent case of Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams a dangerous precedent has been set by the US authorities, the Los Angeles district attorney’s office has said of Williams: “There can be no redemption… and there should be no mercy.” Their statement being because Williams has not admitted responsibility for the murders. Governator of California Schwarzenegger adds “Stanley Williams insists he is innocent, and that he will not and should not apologise or otherwise atone for the murders of the four victims in this case. Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings there can be no redemption.” Surely it would be somewhat cynical if a person who did not commit a crime confessed to said crime merely in the hope of achieving some clemency by being seen by the authorities as taking responsibility for his actions? As Jesse Jackson says “I’m disappointed that Mr Schwarzenegger has chosen death over life, he’s chosen revenge over redemption.”

For the rest of this entry I will work under the presumption of WIlliams being guilty because if he is not it is yet another example of an innocent black man being killed because of US society’s ambivalence. If however Williams did indeed carry out the murders then the case has a degree more moral ambiguity and that makes it interesting to study.

There is no doubting the Williams was involved in the early days of the South Central LA gangland violence in the 1970s that is now rife across the US, he was indeed the founder of the largest gang in the US the Cripps. Undoubtedly this means he is likely to have been involved in some violent crimes, whether perpetrating or orchestrating them himself. This is perhaps more severe than the formative years of most people who even if they go off the rails a little do not start arming themselves against others, but most people do not grow up as a black man in 1960s/1970s America an environment that is unquestionably one of extreme detrimental prejudice. This is of course no excuse, not all who grew up in that environment chose the path that Williams did, and yet there were many others that did so and it would be a foolish person that would assert that all those involved at that stage are still violent and dangerous members of society whilst now largely in their 50s.

Stanley Williams was found guilty of murder in 1981 and for his first 12 years in prison was violent and uncooperative. In 1993 he appears to have undergone something of a turnaround, renouncing his gang membership and apologising for the founding of the Crips. He became an anti-gang activist and wrote extensively to that effect including a number of childrens books. Williams was nominated 4 times for the Nobel Peace Prize from 2001 to 2005 and it is quite clear that his work has had some effect in areas where gang membership and activity may have been hitherto seen as glamorous. Does this mean Williams has exonerated himself for the murders it is alleged he committed, no, but is it not more useful to have a man once synonymous with gangland violence working on the other side trying to dissuede the next generation from falling into the same trap? As it is a dead Williams is of no use to those killed or their families, neither is he any use to those fighting against the culture of gang violence. Is he any use to the state now, obviously not but there are many who will deem it fitting that he is no longer a drain on tax dollars. The fact that whilst the gangland violence continues apace the tax dollars spent on policing will steadily increase will be lost on these people as most rational arguments are. Their’s is the politics of knee-jerk and retribution, justice doesn’t really get a look in.

Perhaps the final irony in the case of Tookie Williams is that a man, famed for his ‘Hasta la Vista’ approach to legislation in his films, a man forever toting more and more technologically-advanced and futuristic weaponry and a man who typifies the whole US macho culture, should be the one to refuse the final appeal for clemency.

The phrase ‘you reap what you sow’ springs to mind… yet again.

Song Of The Day ~ Delays – Long Time Coming

Original Comments:

Mark Ellott made this comment,
What surprises me is the assumption that conviction by a jury means that the defendant is guilty – this, despite several miscarriages of justice in recent years. The death penalty means that the infanticide cases that relied on the “evidence” of Roy Meadows would have resulted in executions of innocent parents. Yet, still, in denial of the evidence people think that execution is in some way a good thing and that people convicted are always guilty.
One innocent exectuted is one too many. And, as you so rightly say… who holds the state to account?

comment added :: 31st December 2005, 18:25 GMT+01 :: http://longrider.blog-city.com