Twenty Years Ago Today: The Last Gasp of the Hangman's Noose

noose30n-1-webTwenty years ago today, the Criminal Justice and Public Order bill came before Parliament for debate. It was one of those major pieces of legislation that threatens to change (and sometimes succeeds in changing) British life forever. But in this case, the precise subject under debate was the reversal of a previous change in British life: the abolition of the death penalty. Technically, the death penalty still existed, at least until 1998 when treason, piracy with violence, and several crimes available only to members of the armed forces were made into non-capital offences. But no actual executions for any offence of any kind had taken place since 1964. The death penalty was, for all intents and purposes, history. Except that some people, particularly backbenchers from the Conservative Party, wished that it were otherwise.

All the arguments for and against were trotted out, as they so often had been. But the one that really held the most weight was the fallibility of the justice system. It was becoming clear in the 90's just how many miscarriages of justice had taken place over the last few decades, many of them of the highest profile: the Guildford Four, found guilty of the Guildford pub bombings of 1974, and the Birmingham Six, found guilty of the Birmingham pub bombings, also in 1974. Both groups had their convictions quashed after they were declared unsafe in 1991 - but if there had been a death penalty, they would almost certainly have hanged long before that.

The Tory backbenchers moaned and muttered that an "unsafe" conviction was not the same as innocence, doing all they could to imply that these men were guilty after all, and deserved to rot on the gallows. But John Major's government led the way in confounding them, with the front bench voting heavily to keep the death penalty off the books. In the end, two amendments were defeated: one for police murders (with a majority of 197) and one for any murders at all (with a majority of 244).

(The fact that the issue was still considered a matter of live debate is reinforced by the fact that there was still a working gallows at HMP Wandsworth until it was dismantled later in 1994. The execution chamber has now been converted into a staff tea room).

And so you can trust that if the police and CPS convict you of murder by mistake, you do at least have the next few decades to prove your innocence. But beware: a new drive to restore the death penalty is in the works. At the present moment it's had no more than its first reading in the Commons, and the date for the second reading has yet to be announced. With any luck, the bill will perish before it gets anywhere near a final vote. We can but hope that our present government is of the same resolve as twenty years ago.