The Hanged Man


It is an axiom of bien pensant opinion — à la BBC and Guardian — that capital punishment is always and everywhere a great evil, and that only ignorant, unreconstructed redneck fascists would support it.  If so, there must be an awful lot of ignorant red-necks in Britain.  And occasionally, an exceptionally egregious crime is reported that reminds those people of just why they think that capital punishment is sometimes appropriate.

I write, of course, about Levi Bellfield.  The murder of Milly Dowler was a horrible crime that shocked the nation, and now we have been shocked all over again by the treatment of the Dowler family in court.  But Bellfield’s defence team were merely following the direction of the accused.  Bellfield presumably derived some perverted pleasure from the murder.  We also have to conclude that, not content with that, he set out to derive further sadistic pleasure from the quite unnecessary persecution and humiliation of the Dowler family in court.  The line of cross-examination did Bellfield no good at all — indeed it may well simply have angered the jury.

Bellfield is a serious danger to society, and apparently a man with no redeeming features.   He reminds us of why, in some cases, capital punishment seems entirely appropriate — indeed, the least we can do.

So let’s review some of the arguments in favour of capital punishment.

First, to many of us the idea of “a life for a life” simply represents natural justice.  I’m sorry if Polly Toynbee can’t see that, but to many of us it’s self-evident.

Secondly, it is right.  Yes, we all have a right to life, but that right in practice depends on a very broad consensus — we respect that right, and in return we expect the protection afforded by that right.  If we break that consensus, if we disregard the right to life with respect to others, than we can scarcely claim its protection for ourselves.

Thirdly, it assuages the anger of the public, and brings closure to both the public and the victim’s family.  Of course the Dowlers have borne the brunt of the pain and anguish in this case.  But society as a whole feels outraged, and demands to see justice done.  The punishment should fit the crime.  Bellfield’s sentence however, in this case, amounts to little more than resuming the prison term he was serving for other murders.  That seems wholly inadequate to the offence, or to the memory of the victim.

Fourthly, protection of the public.  In a previous life when I was involved in hiring employees in business, one of the truisms of recruitment was that the best guide to an employee’s future behaviour was his past behaviour.  Bellfield may well be sentenced to spend his whole life in jail, but as a repeat offender, if he were to escape, or to be paroled by some bleeding-heart Home Secretary in twenty years’ time, he would very probably re-offend.

I don’t regard repeat offending as a necessary criterion for capital punishment, but it certainly strengthens the case.

Fifthly, the cost.  I don’t for a moment suggest that anyone should be hanged just to save money, yet cost adds further weight to the moral and public safety arguments.  It costs upwards of £40k a year to keep a man in jail (perhaps more if he needs solitary confinement, which could apply to Bellfield).  Keeping him in jail for 25 years would cost north of a million pounds — money that Justice Secretary Ken Clarke doesn’t have, and that tax-payers would be reluctant to stump up for such a man.  Provided we avoid the excruciating, decades-long appeals procedures that disfigure American justice in capital cases, we shall find that twenty-five feet of good hemp rope come in a great deal cheaper than twenty-five years in jail.

The arguments against simply don’t stand up.  What about the risk of a miscarriage of justice, and an innocent man being executed?  Of course capital punishment should only be applied where the guilt is clear, as in this case.  Of course the judge should be able to commute to life imprisonment if he has any mental reservation about the jury’s verdict.  That’s what judges get paid for — to use their judgement.

And if we hang a murderer, at least he can’t do it again.  If we agree that the main purpose of the judicial and penal systems is to protect the public, it is a racing certainty that more innocent people have died at the hands of repeat offenders (who I would argue should have been hanged first time round) than have ever died from miscarriages of justice.  Capital punishment will save innocent lives.

Then of course we face the argument that capital punishment is abused in countries like Iran and China.  True.  But we have seen psychiatry and electricity used in human rights abuses in other countries, and we don’t ban psychiatry and electricity.  We just make sure we use them properly ourselves, and that we campaign against their abuse wherever it occurs.

Readers who may be following me so far will want to recall, however, that even if parliament could be persuaded of the case, we are today prohibited from reintroducing capital punishment by EU law.  Yet another reason why we should be Better Off Out.

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36 Responses to The Hanged Man

  1. Julian says:

    Bellfield was convicted on circumstantial evidence alone. The risk with the death penalty is that it’s harder to get a conviction, especially in cases like this where the evidence is not 100%. There will be some people on most juries who do not feel comfortable with the death penalty, especially when there may be a lingering doubt. This could lead to some murderers being acquitted.

    You destroy your own argument by asserting that the evidence in the Bellfield case is clear. It may seem clear that he is guilty but there was no forensic evidence, no photographic evidence, no DNA evidence. Tell us truthfully, if you heard next week that someone else had confessed to the murder of Milly Dowler, would you be that surprised? There have been many cases that seemed clear in the reporting but later turned out to have been false convictions.

    I’m afraid your arguments in favour aren’t very convincing.

    1. A life for a life. If you believe this, presumably you think someone who rapes should be raped in return.

    2. It’s right. That isn’t an argument, it’s an assertion that you’re in favour. Someone else could assert “it’s wrong”.

    3. Assuages the anger of the public. So, when the public are particularly angry, you think the punishment should be greater? The anger of the public in any particular case is heavily influenced by many factors, including press coverage for one.

    4. Protection of the public. This is an argument for life imprisonment meaning life, not an argument for the death penalty.

    5. Cost. The US experience is that sentencing someone to death frequently costs far more in appeals and in keeping them on death row for years. The average time on death row is 10 years. See http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/time-death-row

  2. Julian,

    I would suggest your counter arguments are not convincing also. Suggesting a life for life does not equate a different crime requires the same crime being committed back to them. That is a straw man argument.

    US death row? It is quite conceivable that there will be clear cut cases where the culprit is proven guilty 100% and that in this country we would not allow appeal after appeal.

    Its interesting that when you talk to people who are so against capital punishment – they are more than happy to holiday in the States and go to places like Disneyworld. Florida has the death penalty. So I assume they are happy to support regimes who have this punishment?

    Of course I assume you believe in democracy – in which case given the public in the country have consistently been in favour of capital punishment, you would not want to deny allowing at least a vote on it, unless of course, you have a “we know best” attitude?

    • Julian says:

      Jonathan,

      Your point about democracy is a valid one. I’m sure if a referendum were to be held tomorrow, there would be a vote in favour of the death penalty. If there was a measured debate and an examination of the arguments over a long period though, perhaps not. In particular, if the press had been filled over the last week with a case of miscarried justice, people would perhaps think differently.

      I wouldn’t be against a referendum on this.

      You say you find my arguments unconvincing but don’t address my main point, which is that juries will be less likely to convict if there is a death penalty. Not all the time, not in every case, but perhaps in cases like the Bellfield one where, although we are all sure he’s guilty, there is only circumstantial evidence.

      • Capital punishment is indeed not appropriate in every case..though there are many clear cut guilty cases where in my view (others would disagree) that it is highly appropriate.

        Beverly Allitt, Peter Sutcliffe, Myra Hindley and so on….

        With developments in forensic detection, there will inevitably be clear cut cases where such a punishment is warranted in the eyes of the British public.

        On the issue of a conviction.. A Jury would surely convict as normal and then the sentence could then be decided.

  3. scrotie says:

    That he is going to fear every long day and night in prison seems fitting. Your solution is a bit too quick. There are most likely a few inside readily grinding down some glass to add to a meal.

  4. A.Harris says:

    Its about time a politician said this. Couldn’t agree more!
    Hang the bastard.

  5. Ellie Cumbo says:

    A society that advocates “eye for an eye” justice will inevitable breed vigilanteism, toleration of violence and thus more crime, meaning more victims. See the USA for proof of this.

    This argument just short-termist, knee-jerk populism that would hurt far more people in the long run – not to mention distasteful appropriation of a family’s distress to make a cheap point about Europe.

    • One does not necessarily lead to another. Who is to say there wouldn’t be MORE crime in the US states without capital punishment. I speak from the experience of having lived in the US.. how about you?

      That’s like saying climate change leads to increases in obesity in the UK. The climate has changed.. obesity is rising – it does not automatically follow that there is causal link between the two.

    • I have to agree with Jonathan (Sheppard). It is precisely the failure of the authorities to protect the public, to take the side of the victim against the offender, and to deliver appropriate sentences, that is likely to lead to vigilantism, vendettas and toleration of violence. A proper penal code would reassure the public and reduce the perceived need for members of the public to take matters into their own hands.

  6. Iain cheall says:

    First bit of common sense I’ve ever heard a MEP say

  7. Stu says:

    I think A. Harris’s comments prove the case against. ‘hang the bastard’. Yes, let’s see a return to public flogging, ignore mistakes, dunk witches in the pond. The same mentality as people who bang on the sides of the prison van as it leaves court. Are these the sort of people we want to appease? No. You don’t make a good decision in a fit of anger.

    I was totally enraged when I heard what the family had gone through. And I would have felt the same as them, I’m sure. They shouldn’t have been put through the mill for a second time. But we have a system which assumes the level of the higher ground, which is right. If we start hanging again, we make a return to a backward society. And I don’t want to be part of that.

  8. richard says:

    you assume a perfect justice system in which no one who is innocent ever gets mistakenly found guilty.

    perhaps you could clarify how you feel about the inevitable execution of the innocent?

    a price worth paying, perhaps?

  9. Robin Wilton says:

    Like Julian, I find most of your arguments unconvincing. First, there’s no inalienable principle that the only form of retribution is retribution in kind.
    Your second argument relies on a rather shifty blurring of the distinction between “right” and “a right”. What’s more, there are plenty of rights which society allows us to assign to some individuals while withholding them from others; your appeal to some principle of symmetry doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny.
    Your third point is also dodgy: it relies on the idea that “the public” has some privileged right to anger here – and while the bereaved family certainly does, I think you fall a long way short of proving that the public at large shares the same entitlement.
    Your fourth argument, like your second, relies on linguistic sleight of hand: you gloss over the difference between someone who commits multiple offences and is then caught, and someone who offends, is imprisoned, is released and offends again. As a previous comment notes, in either case, imprisonment for life is enough to meet your public safety goal.
    You say that cost-saving alone is not sufficient to justify execution – but as none of your other arguments is compelling, that’s all you’re left with. And again, as a previous comment says, to use all this to set up a ‘get out of Europe’ punchline is pretty tacky.

  10. jling1990 says:

    Jonathan you miss the fact that statistic show that the rates of murder are lower in states where the death penalty is not used. Its possible to argue that the use of the death penalty in fact increases the murder rate. Bowers and Pierce in this article show how the death penalty can increase the murder rate which is called the brutalizing effect (http://cad.sagepub.com/content/26/4/453.abstract)

    It doesn’t deter crime, it doesn’t bring back the victim. It isn’t cheaper its more expensive. A life for a life is also a misguided argument as on that logic the executioner should be killed for executing.

    Also the death penalty in the US in inherently racist the amount of african americans who suffer the death penalty is staggeringly high.

    Its a backward barbaric tools by those who fail to separate logic from emotion.

    http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/FactSheet.pdf

    • The death penalty doesn’t deter crime?

      A murderer would never be able to kill again. A life sentence for murder – out in 12 and a half years could quite easily kill again – so not wholly accurate that the death penalty cannot deter crime is it.

      Secondly – if someone murdered my wife I would be happy to have the death penalty not to deter what happened, nit to bring them back, because as the relative of the victim that would seem quite just.

      You may not like this view. That is fine in a democracy. I respect that. BUT if you believe in a democracy, a majority have supported capital punishment in the UK for many year. FACT, not opinion.

      • Ken says:

        The econometric evidence on the death penalty is very questionable. The lefties who blithely cite the low rate in non-death penalty states are as guilty as the righties who try to show that the death sentence can deter crime. Because even states that execute a lot of people do not actually execute very many criminals the effects of the death penalty relative to other factors (poverty and demography) are such that the results are unclear. (The Bowers and Pierce paper cited above is ancient – 1980, and superceded by a series of far better studies that claimed to find deterrence, but the most recent studies suggest that the evidence is equivocal.)

        http://www.nber.org/papers/w11982

        There are several reasons why we do not have the death penalty despite its popularity with the public:

        1) Because there is the possibility that the verdict is wrong – and once you’ve executed someone this is a bit difficult to put right.
        1a) As a result juries may be less willing to find someone guilty of a death penalty offence
        2) Because of the concept of the ultimate human right – the right to life.
        2a) Associated with this is the possibility of redemption – we only get one chance, we should not arbitarily take it away from others, even while finding their actions, possibly including murder abhorrent.
        3) By being a party to killing, this depraves society
        4) The possibility that it increases violent crime – once you have committed the death penalty offence, there is no need to hold back in further offences.

        The cost argument is a trivial one: whether one believes that locking up criminals or killing them is cheaper, for the cost isnt the issue.

        Are there good arguments for it? Possibly –

        1) By committing a particularly heinous crime, it is possible that an individual has forfeited the right to life or perhaps deserves the death penalty more than perhaps a more cruel punishment of life without parole.
        2) It may deter some criminals (but note 4 above)
        3) It satisfies a sense of justice in society and amongs the victim’s family and friends (but note 3 above)
        4) It will prevent a given criminal from offending again, although this can be achieved through life without parole.

        I personally cannot overcome my dislike of the death penalty because of the possibility of errors, and because I tend to believe in the possibility of redemption, which means that I do think that the right to life is, if not sacrosanct, very important.

  11. Angelique says:

    An eye for an eye. It sounds reasonable, good and Biblical.

    Although I support the feeling that it would satisfy – I have myself wished it were operating in some cases – however there is always a ‘but’ which has already been mentioned. Miscarriage of Justice. As we are unable to be completely sure in cases – once carried out – it cannot be undone.

    It would be easier to change the Rules. If Levi Bellfield instructed his Defence lawyer to probe the family history that should likewise stand for the Defendant and expose his history. It would have stopped, IMO any “trial” of the family.

  12. Elaine Hunt says:

    Scary that someone in a position of power and authority in Britain today can possibly think like this. Taking a life is taking a life, pure and simple. Who are we to make this decision, any of us? Once life is something that is anything less than sacred and off-limits in terms of deciding whether it is allowed to proceed or should be taken away, we are on the slippery slope to a moral code where some lives are more “important” or “worthy” than others. Then where does it stop?

    I disagree about the probable outcome of a referendum on this issue too. Most people whose gut reaction to someone llike Bellfield is to want him hung would after calm consideration decide that we don’t want to be a society that murders its own citizens – after all, we are better than that.

  13. Robert Eve says:

    Spot on Roger.

  14. Alfred says:

    Making a justice judgement is a responsibility that we are not to shirk. Capital punishment puts a huge responsibility on Judge and Jury but that is not an excuse to avoid death sentences. However, it does mean that it should be used sparingly and very carefully.

  15. Alex says:

    “Of course capital punishment should only be applied where the guilt is clear, as in this case.”

    Roger, people should only be convicted of ANY crime when their guilt is clear. If we’re sending people to prison for 25 years because we’re fairly sure they did something wrong but can’t say for certain, there are serious flaws in our justice system.

    Let’s say that at some point in the future your wife Sara gets accused of murder, and convicted. You know she’s not capable of such a thing and don’t believe she did it, but the jury finds her guilty based on circumstantial evidence alone, as happened with Levi Belfield. Will you be queuing up to pull the lever on the trapdoor?

    “It is a racing certainty that more innocent people have died at the hands of repeat offenders (who I would argue should have been hanged first time round) than have ever died from miscarriages of justice”

    Have you got any evidence to support this? Over the past 40 years how many people have committed murder after being released from a prison term imposed for murder? In the same period, how many people have been released from prison after being cleared of murders they did not commit? Can you produce some hard facts and figures on this? Because I think you’ve just made it up.

  16. JimH says:

    We used to think it was right to hang catholics didn’t we, Guido?

  17. andy says:

    amen… except hemp is illegal too, and if they won’t legalize a plant, good luck getting this made legal.

  18. “Science does really draw a conclusion. It did. There is no question about it,” said Naci Mocan, an economics professor at the University of Colorado at Denver. “The conclusion is there is a deterrent effect.”

    Among the conclusions:

    Each execution deters an average of 18 murders, according to a 2003 nationwide study by professors at Emory University. (Other studies have estimated the deterred murders per execution at three, five and 14).

    The Illinois moratorium on executions in 2000 led to 150 additional homicides over four years following, according to a 2006 study by professors at the University of Houston.

    Speeding up executions would strengthen the deterrent effect. For every 2.75 years cut from time spent on death row, one murder would be prevented, according to a 2004 study by an Emory University professor.

    Read more: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/06/11/national/main2911428.shtml#ixzz1QT419bLq

    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/06/11/national/main2911428.shtml

  19. Ian M says:

    ** Applause **

    It is about time the argument was made – “more innocent people have died at the hands of repeat offenders than have ever died as a result of a miscarriage of justice”

    How many more bleeding heart liberals are going to defend child killers from justice – for us all just to witness this inhuman scum to get out of prison to commit more atrocities against the innocent?

    What aboput the victims? Why are liberals & pro EU types so overtly interested in the rights of the criminal & not the victim?

    Why wont Cameron protect our children from the likes of this monster?

    Oh yes, I remember now – he is not a Tory.

  20. Alfred says:

    We all have a right to:
    Our Property
    Our Freedom
    Our Life
    and expect our society to protect us from those who wish to deprive us of those rights.

    Society is required to show that justice is done when others try and remove one of those rights, otherwise anarchy will reign. Whilst I understand that some feel very uncomfortable about the death penalty, as I do, on rare or very rare occasions it is a punishment that a society should not shrink from using. That is why Judges and juries have a huge responsibility on their shoulders and should be selected and monitored very carefully.

    I appreciate the high standard of debate in the responses above. We should be able to discuss such important matters.

    • Good points, Alfred. We have a right to life, to liberty, and to property. But we accept that the judicial/penal system can deprive us of our rights to liberty or property (prison or fines). The same logic should apply to life as well.

      • John McEvoy says:

        The right to life cannot be equated with a right to property. A building society can over-ride your right to property on a trivial charge such as mortgage arrears

  21. Praguetory says:

    Hear hear.

  22. Pingback: A Response to MEP Roger Helmer’s post supporting capital punishment « Penal Reform

  23. John McEvoy says:

    It is tempting to call for capital punishment, but it requires the State to indulge in what is in effect a counter-murder. I am not prepared to endorse this.

    What we need is proper sentencing and policing. I propose that prison building and management is outsourced to India, preferably Rajasthan where it is rather hot. No airconditioning, no telly, no visitors, no drugs, no parole and no nonsense tolerated by large Sikh guards and their big sticks. The cost would be a fraction of the UK cost, it would provide jobs in India, and the conditions would guarantee a dearth of applicants for incarceration. Those who spend time in such an institution may learn to appreciate their home country when they return and may be encouraged to become acceptable members of the society they had previously betrayed. Very few would risk a second term.

    • John… who is asking you to endorse it? Over 50% of the public have consistently supported capital punishment so isn’t the issue at least worthy of debate.

      And on the issue of endorsing.. I wonder if people (and some do) who say I’d leave Britain if it were reintroduced have been happy enough to holiday in places like Florida.. a ‘regime’ who has the death penalty. Spending your tourist dollars there could be seen as an endorsement .. no?

      • John McEvoy says:

        “Spending your tourist dollars there could be seen as an endorsement .. no?”
        Probably – but I’d still go…

    • With respect, John, you are wrong wrong wrong! Murder is illegal and wicked. Judicial execution is neither, and it is profoundly misleading to equate judicial execution with murder, as you seek to do. You might as well say that the courts imposing a fine is “in effect counter-theft”.

  24. Pingback: Guido’s Petition to Bring Back Hanging: ‘What the Fawkes?’ « Penal Reform

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