Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Opposing the Death Penalty

The Capital Punishment debate is not one of your typical emotion vs reason jousts that seem to be fought on a frequent basis in this day and age. While the argument against the death penalty (with which I have sided for as long as I've had any sort of opinion on the subject) may be that which is seen as more 'level headed' and 'rational', the truth is that both corners appeal to the memory of innocent people who were murdered for no good reason. Those wishing to bring the electric chairs of Texas to the Uk will of course call on the victims of serial killers, particularly children or vulnerable people, in order to press their case. However, opponents of the death penalty like this bunny would be lying if we claimed never to have attempted a tug at the heartstrings ourselves.

This excellent piece - demonstrates that on the subject of Capital Punishment, the 'emotional highground' (if such a thing exists) is far from black and white, but also illustrates the inevitable human cost of restoring hanging, gassing, the chair or whatever form of ultimate justice one might seek to introduce. Something that the short existence of this site has taught me is to have a little more respect for good people who oppose my point of view than might previously have been the case. It should be said that while I've never changed my mind on Capital Punishment, even for a minute or so, I've heard one or two arguments in its favour that have certainly served as food for thought and momentarily stopped this bunny in his tracks.

Thankfully, the suggestion that the death penalty greatly deters and/or reduces crime is one which I have not heard for quite a while. Of course, if we're talking about applying the punishment to murderers, then such a case simply does not stand up. Is a predisposed killer really open to the prospect of thinking rationally about the consequences of getting caught, especially when many believe themselves to have been assigned some sort of mission from a higher authority? Then there are the 'other' types of murder, committed in a moment of rage or temporarily diminished responsibility. No penalty is possibly going to prevent someone from 'snapping' or 'losing it' and I thank the man upstairs that as I've got older, the number of people suggesting that it might has progressively receded.

In the orthodox sense, this would leave us with good old-fashioned retribution as the central plank of any case for Capital Punishment. The sentiment of an 'eye for an eye' is an understandable human reaction towards any horrific crime, particularly when the victim is or was close to the person expressing it. However, it is worth asking whether or not an individual with an emotional stake in an act of heinous wrongdoing is the best-equipped to judge how it should be dealt with?

In my article on Double Jeopardy -, I talked about Ann Ming's determined campaign to change the law, and how difficult it must have been to present a rational case against someone in her position without sounding cold, detached and heartless. Of course it's nigh-on impossible, but that doesn't necessarily prove the opposing argument right. Anyone with a vested and personal interest in an emotional situation will (quite understandably) find it difficult to see beyond the positive resolution of their own case. As a result, they tend not to be people open to reason, acknowledging the other side of an argument, or being shown some of the anomalies and unintended consequences that may result from the outcome they desire.

But here's something it is not terribly easy to argue with:- there have been serial killers and murderers throughout history, whose crimes were vile both in their nature and scale. They confessed and showed no remorse, their guilt is certain and to suggest that rehabilitation may be part of the soultion would be utterly ridiculous. Would a swift 10,000 volts not make a great deal more sense than the expensive business of incarcerating such criminals for the remainder of their natural life? If one looks at it from a particular angle then indeed it might, and my opposition to the state-sponsored execution of the likes of Peter Sutcliffe momentarily becomes more fragile in the principled sense.

What prevents this bunny from crossing over to 'the dark side' is the sense that once you open the door and allow a single individual who is absolutely guilty of a horrendous crime (or multitude of them) to be put to death, then the trip down the most slippery of slopes is well underway. Driven by an emotional or hysterical media, people will always cite additional 'crime x or y' as an instance of why the scope for Capital Punishment should be widened. I have no doubt whatsoever that within a few years of allowing an isolated case to meet their maker, there would be a 'mission creep' in the direction of allowing the death penalty against anyone found guilty of murder.

This is much like the subject of torture in the sense that there is something of a paradox at the centre of the equation. Although some of the issues and questions may be complicated, it ultimately makes more sense to deal in absolutes, and once the firm 'no' on either capital punishment or torture is broken, the natural next steps are inevitably towards the opposite extreme. You can always make a case for someone who killed 25 people to be put to death themselves, just as there is a rational argument that water-boarding is justified if it can be shown to have saved lives. It's the resultant shift in the terms of conversation that represent the real danger.

I remember being opposed to Capital Punishment as a teenager, and being the only member of my family who took that view. This bunny was also the solitary male amongst his school class either principled, wimpish or contrary enough to reject the pumped-up testosterone of mob rule and conclude that putting murderers to death simply brought too many unwanted consequences. The point is I haven't needed a single event to serve as a subsequent booster shot for those instincts, and never after watching a news story about a particularly horrific crime has my initial reaction been to scream "hang him, shoot him" at the television. Of course I find such tales as disturbing and unsettling as most, but you won't find this bunny in the queue of people offering to flick the switch or administer a dose of toxic gas.

However, earlier this year I took the time to research the case of Stefan Kiszko, who lost 16 years of his life for the murder and sexual assault of Lesley Molseed in 1975. This is one of those very rare instances where it is utterly demonstrable that an innocent man was the victim of what one MP described as "the worst miscarriage of justice of all time" (Kiszko, who suffered from hypogonadism, could not physically have produced the semen that contained sperm heads, recovered at the crime scene). Minus the presence of a legal representative, he was bullied over several days into a phoney confession (that he retracted at trial) by police under pressure to jail someone, anyone for the murder. This, along with a truly dreadful defence and the witholding of key evidence that proved his innocence, led to a jury 'just knowing' that he had committed the crime.

Stefan developed schizophrenia while in prison, began to believe that his imprisonment was all part of some state-sponsored experiment (mind you, that's not as ridiculous as it might sound) and had become a thoroughly broken man by the time his conviction was finally overturned, leading to his release in 1992. A massive heart attack 18 months later would finish the job that a few bent cops and an embarrassingly useless solicitor (David Waddington would, regretably, later become Home Secretary) amongst others had started. Of course, had the death penalty been in place at the time of his conviction then Kiszko would simply have been condemned as an evil nonce and child-killer, then hanged amid a backdrop of rapturous public celebration. In reality, he was just a shy and socially awkward tax clerk who was tied to the apron strings of his mother, found it difficult to interact with new people but essentially would not have hurt a fly.

Real people like Stefan Kiszko are the horrendous potential cost of Capital Punishment. I'd hope that some of its supporters would at least consider his case and acknowledge that the actions of the state towards him were themselves every bit as horrific as those of a deranged killer, since they essentially sentenced a totally innocent man to a slow, painful, 17-year death. This more than anything has re-enforced my opposition to the death penalty, because if our police and courts are either inept or corrupt, and partaking in the business of fitting up harmless individuals, then it is in all of our interest for this to be brought into the public domain.

Keeping those who continue to protest their innocence (and therefore show no 'remorse') alive is the only way to ensure that not only the miscarriage of justice, but the nature of it, can be exposed, since evidence that renders the original conviction unsafe might take years or even decades to come to light. Moreover, the state-sponsored execution of innocents does not protect the rest of society by any possible definition. Instead, it acts as a blanket to both the real perpetrator of the crime and the inadequate or dishonest faces of law enforcement, who facilitated the travesty.

I've attached the first part of 'a Life for a Life - the story of Stefan Kiszko', which is a well-produced piece even if it lets the police off the hook somewhat. You should be able to navigate your way through the film from there.

RIP and God bless Stefan Kiszko

Take care and I'll see you all tomorrow...


  1. Very well written Daz. I find that the fact that two prominent "libertarians" - Anna Racoon and Guido Fawkes, both support a return to barbarism truly disturbing.

    Stefan RIP.

  2. Another great post Daz; food for thought indeed.

  3. Thankyou both...

    Guido's a Tory isn't he? Never had him pegged as one of us...