Stuart Hazell, the man accused of murdering 12-year-old Tia Sharp last August, has sensationally changed his plea to guilty. Having firstly claimed her death was the result of an ‘accident’, he now admits murdering her and says his change of heart is due to his not wanting to put her family through further suffering.
Online commenters are having a whale of a time, cynically questioning his motives and baying for his blood. One clearly clairvoyant reader opines that ‘the reality is that he knows there is no way out and wants to be seen as trying to redeem himself in order for a lighter sentence.’ ‘If ever there was cause to bring back the death penalty, this is it,’ observes another. ‘I’d like to be the one to pull the lever to hang the ba@%&?d,’ cries a third. Yet more favour unsanctioned retribution: ‘I hope he suffers at the hands of other prisoners. I’m led to understand that people like Hazell frequently lose their footing and fall down stairs or get their hand slammed in a door, purely by accident of course because some in-mates can’t see too well!’
Oh dear, oh dear. People are not nice. Mr Hazell is not nice, that we know; but these people who want him to suffer an equally, or perhaps more, horrible ending — they aren’t nice either. And yet, they would be the first to be up in arms about Sharia law or any country where such reciprocity is the norm.
Those who decry the death penalty are harangued and described as ‘hand-wringers’. ‘What,’ ask the proponents of capital punishment, ‘should we do then? Lock him up in a jail at a massive cost for 20 years?’
Yes. Yes, that is exactly what we should do. For several reasons.
Firstly, regardless of why, he has pleaded guilty and (whether that was his prime motivation or not) saved the family from the anguish and the public purse from the cost of an expensive and protracted trial. But more than this, he has set an example. Perhaps the odds were against him, and it was almost certain that he’d be found guilty regardless — but there was still a slim chance that he’d be found not guilty, or guilty only on a lesser charge. Until the jury returned with their verdict, no one could be wholly certain… and hope has a habit of springing eternal, as the saying goes. However, if pleading guilty automatically meant the death penalty would be imposed, hope would be lost and only the suicidal would ever admit to anything they’d done. Denials would be the norm, and trials would last for aeons; prisons would be even more over-crowded than they are now with individuals on remand and awaiting their day in court.
And then there’d be the expense of all those appeals. A guilty person given a life sentence may decide to settle down, serve his time, and hope the next twenty years pass quickly. A guilty person given the death penalty would seek an appeal, and keep on appealing as if his life depended on it… because, well, it would.
But those who feel an atavistic need to see Hazell’s head displayed on a pole for all the world to see will care nothing for such matters. They feel he must be made an example of: ‘Do what he did and this will be how you end up.’ It’s a nice, if naive, idea. But is there any proof that capital punishment acts as a deterrent? Looking on the internet, I can find an equal number of seemingly reliable sources to say that it does and that it doesn’t.
Certainly, those individuals who take another’s life in the heat of the moment, because their blood is boiling and they have at hand the means of striking out, are unlikely to think ‘but no, I may be executed for this — I shall simply call you a cad and a bounder and have done!’ And those who plot and plan and scheme in order to bring about the death of their enemy will simply make sure that their plotting, planning, and scheming is just that little bit more subtle and undetectable. Harold Shipman, I should imagine, would have taken the lives of exactly the same number of elderly people whether there was a state-sanctioned death penalty in the offing or not — indeed, when caught, he imposed such upon himself.
Is there not the risk also that those of a thanatophilic bent may even rise to the challenge, embracing the prospect of gambling with their own lives? Besides, surely any psychopath worth his salt believes himself invincible, and would relish the prospect of raising the ante in this way.
Saying that fear of capital punishment will reduce the number of capital crimes is a little like saying that people are only able to follow a moral code because they fear the wrath of God. When people are unable to distinguish for themselves the difference between right and wrong, and need to be manipulated by fear of the consequences, then someone will come along and take advantage of such societal corrosion and dystopic mores.
Which brings me onto the type of person who would want the job of terminating Stuart Hazell’s life. His online attackers seem to have their CVs all ready to send off should the position of hangman suddenly become available. ‘Me, me,’ they plead, ‘pick me.’ They’re in the same breath condemning a man for taking a life and yet desperate to do the same thing themselves? Is that logical? Oh, they’d justify their ardour by saying it was to avenge the death of an innocent child. But how could it do that? Would draining his life blood somehow revivify Tia Sharp? Would it bring her back? And would execution after execution after execution not have a detrimental effect on the psyche of the executioner? Instead of condemning his victims for their view that life is cheap, would he not come to share that very philosophy?
The executions would no doubt take place in private — at least to begin with. Court artists might be allowed in to make sketches of the criminals’ last moments, along with reporters, lest there be any last words. Oh, and maybe the families of any victims, in order to make sure that justice was served. And maybe a film crew… and oh, how about selling the whole idea, from lead-up to execution and aftermath, to Endemol — ‘Big Brother isn’t just watching you; he’s watching you croak’?
But that’d be OK; that wouldn’t trivialize death; that wouldn’t lead to more innocent people being murdered by those they trusted…
You think that’s far-fetched? Maybe so. But the one incontrovertible fact about the death penalty, and the main reason that I think it has no place whatsoever in civilized society, is that it is one hundred per cent irreversible. Innocent people can be found guilty of crimes they didn’t commit; they can be imprisoned for years before the truth comes to light; but they can then be released — bitter and damaged, perhaps, but still with a chance of leading a reasonably normal life, of finding love, having a family, a job, a garden to tend, a big soppy dog that doesn’t care about their past… None of that is possible if they’re dead.
‘But Hazell is definitely guilty,’ you might say. ‘He doesn’t deserve any of those ordinary pleasures.’ Perhaps he is. It seems very likely that he is. The evidence fits… and now with his confession too… But innocent men have been damned by evidence and some have also confessed to things they didn’t do. Had the death penalty still been available, there was sufficient evidence to mean that Barry George, the Birmingham Six, Siôn Jenkins, and countless others, would not now be here to tell the tale.
I’ll end, then, with a quotation from the late Edward Heath. In a debate on the death penalty, he reminded the House of a comment made by Teddy Taylor who had previously stated that ‘if no one else is prepared to hang people he is quite prepared to do the job himself […] I ask him a rather different question. Because of his views, is he prepared to be hanged by mistake?’ (Hansard, HC Deb 13 July 1983 vol 45 cc882-986.)
[Photo pinched from mlhradio’s Flickr stream (http://www.flickr.com/photos/matthigh/2982691629/in/set-72157608463982954/).]