On 13 August 50 years ago, Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans were hanged for the murder of John West. Nobody knew it at the time, but they were to be the last people executed in Great Britain. The anniversary is not just a time for looking back on this historic event, though. It is also a time for looking forward to the day that executions worldwide come to an end, and it is a time for appreciating the leading role that Britain now plays in ending the death penalty in other parts of the world.
When looking back on an execution-free half century, we should not forget those men and women whose deaths it took to spur us towards abolition. Timothy Evans was hanged in 1950 for the murder of his baby daughter, only for the real killer to confess three years later – the same year in which Derek Bentley was hanged despite doubts about his role in the murder of a policeman (his conviction was posthumously quashed in 1998). And in 1955, there was public outrage when Ruth Ellis was executed, not least because she had suffered incredible physical and emotional abuse at the hands of the man she killed. These manifestly unfair hangings galvanised the anti-death penalty movement and spurred parliament to suspend the death penalty in 1965.
Despite our horrific experiences with capital punishment, there are still calls to reinstate the death penalty today. It’s worth bearing in mind that if we had capital punishment, the likes of Angela Cannings and Sally Clark might have shared the same fate as Evans, Bentley and Ellis. Like Evans, they were convicted of murdering their babies, and, like Ellis, such murders flew in the face of society’s expectations of women. Cannings and Clark, though, were both released from prison when it became clear they did not commit the crimes they were convicted of. If we had the death penalty, the blood of Cannings and Clark would be on our hands.
Of course, there are those horrific murders where the guilt of the person is not in doubt and the urge to execute is strong, and in any debate about capital punishment we should not forget the victims of the likes of Harold Shipman and Fred and Rosemary West. But it is precisely at these moments that a society needs to stand strong and not reduce itself to the level of taking lives. So we should be glad that the UK ratified the 13th Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights in 2003 and abolished the death penalty in all circumstances.
We could have stopped there, but we have long recognised that we cannot stand back and let other states commit human rights violations. The UK has therefore taken a leading role in encouraging states to end capital punishment. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a detailed strategy for promoting the abolition of the death penalty, and British-based charities such as Reprieve and Amicus have provided invaluable legal assistance to Britons who are facing the death penalty abroad and have played a vital role in ensuring that we are not inadvertently complicit in executions elsewhere.
But for all the admirable work of the UK government in this field, we still have a long way to go. Britons still face the death penalty in other countries, such as Lindsay Sandiford in Indonesia and Andargachew Tsege in Ethiopia. Investigations have also revealed that the government provides financial and technical aid to countries like Iran and Pakistan to help with their anti-drug trafficking efforts – aid that ultimately assists these states with the execution of drug traffickers. And despite our efforts to promote abolition worldwide, 100 countries still have capital punishment on the books.
The end of the global death penalty might be a long way off, but the centuries-old roots of capital punishment are slowly withering away. Executions in the US are dwindling as states struggle to actually carry out executions, and more and more countries are turning their backs on capital punishment as revelations of innocent people being killed by the state come to the surface, and as more and more people express their disgust with this barbaric, violent and ineffective way of dealing with crime. Only 16 states had abolished the death penalty for all crimes in 1977, but this figure now stands at 98. On the 50th anniversary of the last executions on these shores, we must press on with our goal of promoting abolition and saving the lives of those condemned to die.
Dr Bharat Malkani, Lecturer and Pro Bono Coordinator, Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham. This article was first published by The Conversation.