I watched Channel 4’s parallel Britain drama The Execution Of Gary Glitter because I felt kind of compelled to as something that is likely to ignite debate about a very emotive subject.

What I think the program did well was keep out of much of the subjective judgement of the pros and cons of the death penalty in the sense that it did not overtly seem to favour one side or the other, it was after all a drama. However it did venture partially into that area by providing the arguments in the characters represented within the drama and by the closing credits which cited a Harris Poll that stated 54% of the British public supported the reintroduction of the death penalty.

Unlike some people criticising the drama I think the example of Gary Glitter was a good one because it is high profile enough for most people to have some opinion on it. There is likely to be very little debate as to any miscarriage of justice in Glitter’s case as it is widely presumed that he is guilty. Therefore, putting the judicial situation to one side for a moment, the arguments in his case come very much down to whether or not one supports the execution of people who have been proven categorically to be guilty of the most heinous crimes.

The drama focused on a couple of points that are perhaps fanciful (maybe designed to be) in the main case namely that (a) sentence should be carried out within 30 days of it’s being passed and (b) that the decision to implement the death sentence itself lay with the jury and not with the presiding judge. Both of these points I would have thought are complete non-starters in legal terms. In the model the drama described the only appeal process possible was to the Home Secretary hence the ability to keep the timeframe to 30 days. The judiciary are not likely to cede their sovereignty in such matters nor should they. To place elected politicians in the situation of having the last say in the serving of judgement would be catastrophic as it would mean the likelihood of judgement served based on public opinion and not necessarily on jurisprudence.

I was not impressed with the dealing of the counter-arguments to the death penalty which I think were restricted very much to a bourgeois middle-class liberalism that only serves to inflame the supporters of capital punishment and does nothing to further the case to prevent its reintroduction. Not everyone who stands against the death penalty is a wooly-minded liberal and neither are the most cogent arguments against it.

Looking at the arguments in favour of the death penalty which were certainly voiced in the program a lot, these press all the populist, self-righteous and vengeful buttons and, allowed to go unchecked, are as persuasive as the idea of immigration controls.

The most common view is that the death penalty is a deterrent to the most severe of crimes, though I believe most of the people who cite this could not if pressed come up with any statistics that would in any way back this up. Certainly my impression is that you are not less likely to be murdered in the states of America where the death penalty is enforced than you are in those where it is not. With very little research it appears that the FBI statistics support my position and not that of those thinking it is a deterrent.

Overall Murder rates 2007

The second idea is that there are certain people who are just evil. This rather depends therefore on whether you accept evil as a value, or a concept that exists. If so it certainly packages things into the more black and white, which humans tend to prefer, rather than successions of greys which are a great deal more ambiguous. It would be very nice and easy to say ‘well that person murders people because they are just evil’ but the debate should not actually end there, though most of the proponents of the evil hypothesis would prefer it to. If such a thing as evil exists how does it manifest itself? Are some people born evil? Is it something that people can become later on? If the former then there must be some form of genetic predisposition and therefore is it not a good idea to study such a thing in order to ascertain whether or not it can be identified? If in fact ‘evil’ is something that comes about through nurture then there must be identifiable factors at certain points of a person’s upbringing that could be studied to determine which of these changed a person’s intrinsic moral value. What if evil were to exist but be a combination of both of these factors? Therein surely still lies the basis for scientific research to determine whether there are common triggers that may make people in certain circumstances or at certain times more disposed to acts that the majority would consider evil. Furthermore once a person is ‘evil’ is that it, is there no turning back? If this were to be true are there different grades of evil, can you just become a bit nasty or is it a case of once turned you have the dark lord as your master? If there remains hope (and surely the Christians amongst you must believe this to be the case for it is written thus) then would it not be verging on sinful to deny someone the chance to realise their wrongs and repent? Apparently God rejoices far more when a sinner repents than ‘he’ does over someone who’s always righteous. Possibly because the always righteous are either sickeningly sanctimonious and therefore very boring company, or they are merely non-existent. How does God feel if you decide for ‘him’ and put someone to death?

This is of course leaving aside the idea that evil is an arbitrary subjective concept that has been invented in order to brush things under the carpet that disturb us but we do not understand. After all a great many humans retain a naive belief that there is an innate moral justice in the world, that there will, that there must be, be some balance. The God theories are but one manifestation of this. Taking the God theory into the debate though, the bible may say an eye for an eye (better refuted by Ghandi) but it also says “judge not lest ye be judged” and Jesus says that one must forgive ones neighbour 77 times 7, he does not go on to list a hold load of caveats such as unless your neighbour is just evil or has committed certain things. Ah but the bible has commandments and ‘thou shalt not kill’ is one of them so does this not therefore show a clear transgression of the most basic moral code? Yet there is no commandment that thou shalt not rape, or interfere with children but we still know this to be wrong and it is enshrined in law. Are some laws therefore more important than others? Or is it the adherence to a code of laws that is key? If the state kills how does it square this with the thou shalt not kill commandment? Are there a group of people for whom the commandments do not apply? If so who is to say who is in these groups? Is it simply a majority thing, that if you’re in the biggest group you can decide that they don’t apply to you today? The evil and religious argument in general is riddled with holes and fraught with moral subjectivism and frankly to make a code of laws on these premises is going against all forms of logic.

A lot of supporters of the death penalty ask what one should do if you know categorically that someone is guilty. This of course depends on one’s view of categorically, it reminds me of the case of Nick Ingram who was executed in Georgia on the 8th of April 1995. For Americans Ingram’s case was no different to so many others and it only came to light in the UK because he was of joint British-American nationality. In April 1995 a retrial was called for because it emerged Ingram had been given anti-psychotic drugs during his trial which made him appear cold and emotionless and had potentially a detrimental effect on how he was seen in court and by the jury. In Ingram’s case there was no refuting that he appeared to have carried out the crime, Ingram’s defence hinged on the claim that he had blacked out after a drunken binge and remembered nothing of the bungled robbery and subsequent murder. This might be seen as an easy defence, but what if it were true? Are we really prepared to stake people’s lives on the fact that we think this is provable one way or another? Ingram served 12 years on Death Row and was granted last minute reprieves more than once including the last one one hour before his scheduled execution. Despite pleas of clemancy by the then Archbishop of Canterbury and numerous backbench MPs Prime Minister John Major who claimed to be against capital punishment refused to intervene and plead for clemency. American pro-death penalty supporters cheered the hearse that drove to the prison on the night he was put to death by electric chair. He was 31.

I am also often asked what I would do were I in the situation of the victim, ie were someone in my family killed – well this is a non-starter, the law is not made by people who are involved in a case for they cannot be anything other than subjective, the law has to take a dispassionate view as to what is right and just. You hear a great many people wronged by people who do not play the vengence card for as they rightly say “it will not bring x back.”

Another argument I have heard mentioned is cost – that it must surely cost less to put someone to death than to keep them alive at the taxpayer’s expense for their life’s incarceration. Are there any figures to support this? My gut instinct is that the legal framework that must be gone through for a death penalty case and the appeals processes etc. are probably vastly more expensive than the cost of keeping someone locked up. According to statistics in California the additional cost of an inmate on Death Row is $90,000 a year more than an inmate who is serving life with no prospect of parole in a maximum security prison.

The case of Gary Glitter is interesting because it highlights another potential problem, the fact that the media hugely influences and manipulates our opinion about people and circumstances. Frequently we are told that other countries standards are not up to our own, the mistrust of foreigners and foreign governments is rife, and yet in the Gary Glitter case one is expected to take all the evidence of a Vietnamese court as red. Now it may very well be the case that the allegations are completely well-founded and Glitter is indeed guilty, he certainly does not come across as a likeable man nor full of remorse. However were he to be innocent of the crimes this would very likely be his behaviour, it certainly does not prove guilt one way or another. There is nothing that precludes innocent people from being bastards, you don’t have to be likeable to be law-abiding.
Finally though I have to come back to the case of the Guildford Four where in 1975 Mr Justice Donaldson, who also presided over the Maguire Seven trial, expressed regret that the Four had not been charged with treason, which then still had a mandatory death penalty. In 1977 the IRA made the British aware that the Guildford Four were innocent of the bombings but the convictions were only quashed in 1989 when the appeal judge declared that the police had lied and fabricated notes and documents in order to fit the case they wished to present. The overturning of the convictions came too late for Guiseppe Conlan, had Judge Donaldson had his way it would have come too late for ten other innocent individuals.

Song Of The Day ~ Idlewild – Love Steals Us From Loneliness