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Where the Death Penalty Perished Despite Public Opinion and Terror

November 02, 1986|Fenton Bresler | Fenton Bresler is an attorney in London

LONDON — While Californians debate the quality of state Supreme Court justices in terms of their failure to apply the death penalty, the issue in Britain is as dead as a murderer's victim. England's antipathy toward capital punishment also has a geographic and social context: Not one nation in Western Europe executes its murderers--or any other criminals. Even France, which held out longest against the abolitionist tide, joined the rest in 1981, when "Madame Guillotine" was abolished.

What keeps Europeans from practicing the time-honored biblical precept of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth"--hence, a life for a life?

I think the answer began in the years of World War II, when Europe knew firsthand the horrors and cruelties of war on almost a daily basis. Most countries, even those not overrun by the Nazis, experienced the nightmare of aerial bombing. Millions died and the millions who survived learned a new respect for the meaning of life--or at least their religious, social and cultural leaders did.

In July, 1983, Parliament overwhelmingly rejected the return of judicial execution and the Times of London responded: "The issue is now locked away not just for the life of this Parliament but for the knowable future."

That was the third attempt to bring back hanging, Britain's only form of killing capital offenders, in the 21 years since Prime Minister Harold Wilson's Labor government put the public executioner--an amiable pub-owner in his other working life--out of business. The 1983 parliamentary defeat means that life imprisonment (which in Britain generally means far less than a person's natural life) is the only available penalty for murderers. Even Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's stated personal preference for the return of capital punishment has not been nearly enough to reverse the legislative support for abolition.

The irony is in the public will, a will apparently close to California's. Many of Thatcher's political advisers believe that if her Conservative Party were to include a call for the restoration of hanging--at least for terrorists--before the general election to be held within the next two years, she would be assured of a landslide return to power. Indeed, Thatcher could probably carry the nation on this issue but she would not be able to muster a majority of her own politicians in Parliament.

The ordinary man in the street looks at what he considers the facts--homicides nearly doubled since the 1965 Abolition Act, firearm offenses increased by a staggering 500%. In response to a general upsurge in serious crime, Britain's police have had to give up their famous unarmed status. The man in the street sees only one possible remedy and would agree with what Sir Edward Gardner, a veteran Tory and distinguished barrister, said during the 1983 debate: "We are not only relying on statistics, but on something we all understand--the fear of death."

But such logic has not impressed a wide range of informed opinion. Not only most politicians--including some in Thatcher's own Cabinet--but the overwhelming majority of judges, lawyers and church leaders have come out against hanging. They tend to believe what the Most Rev. Donald Coggan said as long ago as 1975, when he was archbishop of Canterbury:

"There is an ultimate sense in which judgment must be left to God. Our officers of law fulfill a function in our national life which is indispensable for its health and well-being, but there comes a point--when life and death itself are at stake--where weak and fallible human beings must say: This is where we give place to divine judgment and mercy."

Even those whose Christian faith may not be as strong as a cleric's take the same passionate line. Roy Hattersley, Neil Kinnock's deputy as leader of the Labor Party opposition, has spoken for many countrymen who would never dream of supporting him or his party: "I am opposed to the return of capital punishment--opposed in principle and opposed without reservation. The state does not possess the moral right to take the life of a man or woman in its custody. Even if the death penalty were a deterrent, I would be opposed to its reintroduction."

Nor has outrage at the continuing carnage in Northern Ireland--or the Irish Republican Army's spasmodic but horrendous excursions onto the mainland--served to bring back hanging, not even if limited to terrorist murders. The British people, as a whole, would probably want it--but not the leaders. As early as 1974, the second Wilson administration heard from a high-powered committee on security in Northern Ireland; one unanimous recommendation dealt with hanging:

"Experience in all parts of Ireland has shown that the use of capital punishment tends to lead sections of the public to regard those executed as martyrs. We believe that the reintroduction of capital punishment would be likely to cost the lives of soldiers, police and civilians."

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