Social Sciences- Hot Topics-Capital Punishment
There are few more emotive or contentious political or moral issues than the decision of a country to invoke the death penalty. According to Amnesty International in April 2005, 120 countries had "abolished the death penalty in law or practice", and 76 permitted the death penalty to be carried out. 3,797 people were executed in the year 2004.
In the United Kingdom, where hanging had been the preferred method of execution since the fifth century, the passing of the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act in 1965 ended capital punishment in this country.
Peter Anthony Allen and Gwynne Owen Evans became the last two men to be hanged in the United Kingdom on 13th August 1964 (both at 8.00 am), although David Chapman was the last person to have the death penalty passed on him. This was on 1st November 1965, seven days before the passing of the Act mentioned above. The last woman executed in the UK, in a case that did much to bring about the abolition of capital punishment, was Ruth Ellis (13th July 1955).
In America, following a brief suspension of the death penalty from 1967 to allow the Supreme Court to decide whether capital punishment was unconstitutional, it was reintroduced in several states during the mid-seventies.
No execution was carried out, until the case of Gregg v. Georgia was heard in the Supreme Court, and it was deemed that the various state death penalty statutes were not unconstitutional.
The first execution following the 1967 suspension was that of Gary Gilmore, who elected to be executed (by firing squad) in Salt Lake City on 17th January 1977.
Up to 1995, of the 5.760 people sentenced to death, 5 per cent were executed. 38 states now have the death penalty on their statute books, and 59 prisoners were executed in the USA in 2004.
The Moral Issue
Most discussions of the death penalty are about the moral aspects - whether it is right for the state to take a life.
Those in favour of capital punishment say:
It acts as an effective deterrent from murder,
It prevents killers from murdering again,
It is less of a drain on rate-payers' pockets than the cost of imprisonment,
A person who takes a life, gives up the right to their own.
Those against the death penalty say :
There have been many high-profile miscarriages of justice.
Any taking of life (even by the state) is un-civilised behaviour.
It doesn't act as a deterrent to criminals.
The cost of appeals against death penalties make it just as expensive as imprisonment.
"Does capital punishment tend to the security of the people? By no means. It hardens the hearts of men, and makes the loss of life seem light to them"
Elizabeth Fry, social reformer
"Christ's crucifix shall be made an excuse for executing criminals"
William Blake, poet
"If we are to abolish the death penalty, I should like to see the first step taken by my friends the murderers"
Alphonse Karr, French journalist
"We are concerned here only with the imposition of capital punishment for the crime of murder, and when a life has been taken deliberately by the offender, we cannot say that the punishment is invariably disproportionate to the crime. It is an extreme sanction suitable to the most extreme of crimes"
Potter Stewart, Associate Justice, US Supreme Court
Capital Punishment UK
Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
U.S. Department of Justice
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