Background Information Abolition of Capital Punishment

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Background Information Abolition of Capital Punishment

On the 9th of November 1965, the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act suspended the death penalty for murder in the United Kingdom for a period of 5 years and on the 16th of December 1969; the House of Commons confirmed its decision that capital punishment for murder should be permanently abolished.

Capital punishment was totally abolished for all civil crimes then, but remained on the statute book for high treason and piracy until the 10th of December 1999, International Human Rights Day, when the government totally abolishing capital punishment in Britain.

Historical background
Capital punishment had first been abolished in the 11th century by William the Conqueror but was reinstated by his son William Rufus. Efforts to have the death penalty abolished had been going on since the late 1700's. In 1813, a Bill was proposed "to repeal so much of the Act of King William as punishes with death the offence of stealing privately in a shop, warehouse or stable, goods of the value of 5s" (25p). This is what we call shoplifting now. This Bill was thrown out by the House of Lords.
In 1820, a bill was passed which made stealing to the value of more than £10 liable to the death penalty. The death penalty was removed for forgery in 1832; this was important because a conviction for forgery generally did result in the execution of the culprit.
Over the first half of 19th century many individuals and pressure groups, including author Charles Dickens and the Quaker movement campaigned for ending of public executions. The public were seen to enjoy these far more than they should and The Establishment had never been happy about the ordinary people enjoying such a morbid pastime as watching a criminal struggling on the end of a rope! There is no doubt that public did enjoy a "good hanging" - there was general disappointment expressed if the criminal died too quickly. At the beginning of the century, hangings were attended by all classes of society and were considered an excellent day out and the rich would pay handsomely to get a good view of the event. By the end of the period, it is claimed that it was mostly the lower classes who were attending them and in 1868 they were abolished.

In 1810, there were 222 capital crimes, but by 1861, it was reduced to just 4 but in reality there was really only one capital crime - murder - for which people would continue to be put to death in peacetime.

The Penal Servitude Act of 1853 introduced the modern concept of prison as a punishment in itself rather than merely as a place to hold people awaiting trial, execution or transportation. New prisons had been built all over the country to house people who would have previously been transported or hanged.

In 1908, the minimum age for execution was raised to 16 and to 18 in 1933

The arguments raised around the whole issue of capital punishment included:

  • Did society have the right to take life at all?

  • Was it necessary with a relatively low crime rate to put people to death?

  • Were innocent people being hanged?

  • Was hanging really the deterrent it had always been made out to be?

  • Was hanging, carried out in complete secrecy, as humane as the Government would have had us believe?

  • Was the whole reprieve system just a lottery that was incapable of distinguishing between degrees of wickedness?

  • Why were so few people hanged and so many reprieved? Were those people who were hanged guilty of much worse crimes than those who were reprieved?

  • Was the Home Secretary the right person to hold the power of life or death over capital cases?

Generally it seems that the reprieve system was not seen to be fair, a changing attitude in society and a concerted campaign by the media and liberal pressure groups were the principal reasons for the abolition of the death penalty in Britain. It is interesting to note that there was never a referendum held to give the public a democratic say on the matter!

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