New Forest East



By Julian Lewis

Southern Daily Echo – 23 August 2002

It is too early to know whether the existence of the death penalty would have affected the chances of survival of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman once they had been abducted. It has always seemed to me, however, that those who successfully campaigned to abolish capital punishment in the 1960s probably have a lot of innocent blood on their hands – if not their consciences.

Many people believe the concept of vengeance or retribution is unacceptable. To my mind it is part of the notion of punishment fitting the crime, to which most people subscribe. Nevertheless one does not have to believe the premeditated murderer simply deserves to die: there is a supremely practical argument in favour of the death penalty being available for use in appropriate circumstances.

If a crime has already been committed which will result in a long prison sentence for the criminal, what has he or she left to lose by murdering the victim? Killing the victim will reduce the chance of a criminal being caught and will not add greatly to the sentence served if, nevertheless, the criminal is caught.

To those who say that some criminals would prefer to die rather than serve long sentences in prison, we may respond, first, that there is little if any evidence for this and, second, that it makes a nonsense of the idea of commuting death penalties to life sentences.

The issue of the death penalty has traditionally been a matter for individual conscience in Parliament and has not been subject to a vote on party lines. Perhaps that was the only way party leaders felt able to spit in the face of public opinion by imposing a measure on society which greatly reduced the safety and protection of our people.

There is only one serious argument in favour of abolition – namely, the danger that an innocent person might be convicted. The DNA revolution has significantly reduced this danger, but it can never be entirely eliminated.

In the end, people have to choose between a small risk of a deadly miscarriage of justice – of which there seem to be very few past examples – and a large risk that innocent victims of major crimes will continue to be murdered as long as this reduces the chances of criminals being caught without significantly adding to the penalties they face if they are caught.