Why are so many Tories obsessed with hanging?

Alex Hern argues that we must not merely confine our arguments against the death penalty to those times when it’s politically expedient, but on all occasions.

The killing of Troy Davis last week was a call to action for those of us around the world who may have assumed the battle against the death penalty was won 50 years ago. When we abandoned hanging in 1964, we did it after considerable queasiness at the rising number of miscarriages of justice which had led to execution of innocents.

Yet in the USA, the same response does not seem to be occurring – and neither is it here, amongst the retrograde group of Tories who are calling for the same practice to be resurrected in our nation.

This queasiness seems to be averted with a mixture of extreme belief in the abilities of forensic scientists, and complete trust in the judicial system.

The latter we see in statements like Antonin Scalia from 2006, when he declared that in the modern American justice system there has not been:

“…a single case – not one – in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.”

Of course, many innocents’ names have been shouted from the rooftops. The New Yorker article from which that quote is taken from presents Cameron Todd Willingham, one such man, and this week has presented us with another.

Although many have only heard of Troy Davis recently, and although the eleventh-hour attempt to get the US Supreme Court to hold on his execution may imply otherwise, the overwhelming lack of evidence in his case has been known for well over four years. It is not merely a lack of time that failed him, but the system as a whole.

Of course, those in the UK who seriously call for such a punishment to be restored are unlikely to get by with the same circular arguments that some US supporters of the death penalty have used, where the fact someone was executed means they were guilty, and that therefore no innocent person has ever been murdered by the state.

Instead, those who actually have attempted to reason out their proposal have tended to claim that their system would only rely on DNA evidence, or some other equally unshakeable scientific proof that a person was a murderer.

It would be easy to reply to this assertion by pointing out the number of times DNA evidence itself has misled, by pointing out the “CSI effect” already means that juries overvalue it when assigning guilt, or by demonstrating that even forensic scientists can make mistakes, but to take the easy way out would be wrong. To argue against the death penalty only by arguing that innocents will be caught up in it would be wrong.

We must instead take the high road, and argue that as a society we have moved beyond simple lex talonis, we have accepted that an eye for an eye leaves the world blind, and we will not return our society to its Victorian roots.

However, as well as being an important point of principle that we must never forget, there is a more practical political point to be made from the same issue. Those calling for the resurrection of the death penalty made a great show of public opinion being on their side.

Then, when it turned out it wasn’t, they went strangely quiet. For what the polls also show – and have for over five years – is that, although a well-phrased question can still bring out a majority in favour of hanging, that majority is more and more questionable as time goes on.

We should not let people forget what these dinosaurs suggested until their views shame them out of politics.

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