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Faith Eckersall looks at the capital punishment debate
THE IDEA of monsters such as Milly Dowler’s killer Levi Bellfield, Yorkshire ripper Peter Sutcliffe and the Moors murderers swinging at the end of a hangman’s rope is not unappealing to at least 70 per cent of us, according to surveys.
Ever since capital punishment was effectively abolished in 1965, there have been yearly calls for its reinstatement and the issue was debated by every parliament until 1997.
Now, it seems, we may hear it debated again, thanks to a new campaign that has taken advantage of a tweak in procedures which means that any e-petition on the government’s website which garners more than 100,000 signatures should be referred to the Commons’ cross-party Backbench Business Committee, which will decide whether it is worthy of debate.
Led by blogger Paul Staines of the Guido Fawkes website, pro-debaters received a fillip yesterday when the leader of the House of Commons, Sir George Young MP, commented: “What else is Parliament for? People have strong opinions and it does not serve democracy well if we ignore them or pretend that their views do not exist.”
Even those vehemently against capital punishment usually acknowledge the emotions felt by those who have suffered from the crimes committed by people such as the serial killer Dr Harold Shipman or Roy Whiting, who raped and murdered Sarah Payne.
However, as Amnesty International’s head of policy and government affairs Jeremy Croft observes: “In our experience public support for capital punishment falls dramatically when people are confronted with the grim reality of what it means to put a person on trial and then kill them.”
And the reality is grim indeed.
Author Richard Clark, who has written extensively on the subject, describes the ‘long-drop’ method of hanging used in Britain’s jails. It was, he says, ‘designed to break the prisoner’s neck by allowing them to fall a pre-determined distance and then be brought up with a sharp jerk by the rope.’
None of this, however, describes adequately the horrors that have been witnessed in the gallows chambers at British prisons.
The execution of Edith Thompson in 1923 saw the condemned woman in such a state of collapse that she had to be helped on to the platform. Executioner John Ellis was so traumatised that he quit his post and later committed suicide.
Another female execution, that of Martha Brown, in public outside Dorchester Prison in 1856 had such a profound effect on the 16-year-old Thomas Hardy that he was inspired to write Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
More modern methods of execution are little better. In Alabama in 1983, according to the Death Penalty Information Centre, the electrocution of prisoner John Evans resulted in sparks and flames erupting from the electrode attached to his leg and the electrode then burst from the strap and caught fire.
And lethal injection, beloved method of dispatch in many US States, doesn’t always go swimmingly, either – in Oklahoma in 1992 Robyn Lee Parks suffered a violent reaction to the death drugs.
The vital question, of course, is how interested are we in all this?
MP for North Poole and Mid Dorset Annette Brooke says: “I still get people coming to surgeries asking me to press for the reinstatement of capital punishment. I sympathise with a lot of what they feel but have to tell them that it’s something I would never vote for. I can remember leading a sixth form debate about this subject and by the time I had researched it I was very, very strongly convinced that it was not right for the state to take people’s lives.”
However, she is glad there may be another debate.
“It’s an issue that many people hold firm views on and I’m glad the coalition made the necessary changes so that issues people feel so strongly about can be debated by MPs.”
Even then, it may not resolve much. The Bournemouth Echo sent a reporter into the town centre yesterday, to gauge public opinion.
But after an hour we could find no one with a strong view either way.
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