Documentary tracing the story of the ultimate sanction, examining such matters as the protocols of the public execution and the 'science' of hanging.
Browse content similar to Crime and Punishment - The Story of Capital Punishment. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
Today, there are over 50 countries around the world which continue to use the death penalty.
Individuals who break the law can face a firing squad in China...
..lethal injection in the USA...
..and the hangman's noose in Singapore.
It is only a decade since capital punishment was finally removed from British law.
For centuries, Britain carried out state executions,
and capital punishment was defended as a deterrent against crime,
retribution against those who broke society's rules.
The noose would be put over their neck,
a hood put over their heads and then the cart would drive away, leaving them to dangle
and to gradually, slowly, after 30 minutes, to strangle to death.
For over 200 years, a moral battle raged
about whether the state has the right to execute.
A powerful liberal elite emerged, determined to abolish the death penalty.
The death penalty is inhuman and degrading when you see
how it is carried out and the procedures that are necessary.
But the vast majority of public opinion has continued to demand the ultimate punishment.
There are certain sorts of murder that are so premeditated,
so violent and so shocking,
that in the interests of maintaining confidence in the rule of law,
the only appropriate punishment is the death penalty.
This debate has shaped our ideas about how a civilised society
should punish its citizens in the 21st century.
The word "punishment" comes from the same root as "pain".
It is, in its essential conception, painful.
If it is not painful, it is not punishment.
The history of capital punishment in Britain is a long and bloody one.
Since the Middle Ages, those condemned to death have variously faced being boiled alive,
burnt at the stake, or hung, drawn and quartered.
But it was in the late 18th century that the death penalty was applied most widely.
London, 1783 - thousands crammed the streets of the capital
to watch a public execution, carried out in the King's name.
This is the height of the Bloody Code,
a system of justice and punishment that listed over 200 offences
for which a man or a woman could be sent to the gallows.
In a society in which,
as they would have expressed it in those days,
they were lovers of liberty and very keen on property,
they had to have a means of protecting
both their liberty and property.
So you don't want a standing police force or a standing army
and therefore there was the very successful argument in Parliament
that you had capital punishment for just about everything.
Under the Bloody Code, even petty theft,
like pick-pocketing or stealing a sheep,
could result in the death penalty.
And it also threatened to execute anyone who kept the company of gypsies for more than a month...
or who blackened their face with the intention of stealing.
Because we have lost sight of its meaning to contemporaries
and we can reach only for one explanation -
that those people, 200, 300 years ago,
were barbarians, compared to us.
But go back to the 18th century and you have very few prisons,
very inefficient policing, but you do have the noose.
And the noose is understood, not as a cruel device,
but as a way of testifying to the anger of the King.
The execution day started at Newgate Prison, just west of St Paul's
in the centre of town
and the procession went from the gates of Newgate
through High Holborn, what is now modern Oxford Street,
on to the site of Tyburn.
From the Middle Ages, Tyburn had been the traditional site
of the majority of public executions in Britain.
The condemned would probably try and wear their best clothes,
some would put up a big brave show
and they would be taken along this route,
where people would either stand on the street,
or the better off would actually hire out rooms
on either side of the streets.
With no police force or prison system, capital punishment served as a deterrent against crime.
It was therefore important that everyone in society should attend,
to witness justice being carried out.
There was one occasion where a schoolteacher was reprimanded by the moral authorities,
probably by the local newspapers, because he decided to take his children on a picnic
so they wouldn't see the execution.
This was considered a very bad thing to do.
The trouble was, learning a moral lesson from the death of somebody else was what the moralists wanted.
It wasn't often what they got, because people would frequently
go along there in more of a party atmosphere.
The execution day had its own ritual, involving the participation of the crowd itself,
which appeared to revel in a macabre party atmosphere.
But some historians have interpreted this scene very differently.
It misses the silence that descends
when the executioner comes onto the platform.
When top hats came into fashion,
it misses the point of the big cry, "Hats off!"
It misses the kinds of communication that were possible
between members of the crowd and the felons about to die.
The jokes, the teasings, the cries from the crowd, "Hello, Curly!
"Keep up your spirits!"
Of course, the poor sod was actually shitting and pissing himself in sheer bloody terror.
Capital punishment as a deterrent was believed to work due to the painful nature of the executions.
Hangings often ended in a slow strangulation.
If they were lucky, their friends would pull on their legs to help end their misery.
This is the origin of the phrase "pulling your leg".
The watching crowd knew that a person's social class
would have determined whether they were executed.
One of the great defences of the death penalty was the idea that somehow, every aristocrat,
every member of the gentry was subject to the same laws.
In fact it's not true. It's self evidently not true.
99.9% of everybody who was executed by the state
was dirt poor and from the lowest class of Britain.
The vanishingly small number of aristocrats and members of the gentry
who ended their lives in execution,
did so by dint of being psychopaths and lunatics.
The accused faced trial by a jury drawn from the local community,
many of whom were sympathetic to the defendant's case.
Frequently, these juries sought to commute the punishment to avoid the death penalty.
Many juries, for example, refused to value property at their full value,
precisely in order to prevent a capital charge being applied in that particular case.
Juries also, regularly, um...
regularly pleaded for mercy, even after they'd found somebody guilty
and seen them sentenced to be hanged.
Between 1770 and 1830, over 35,000 people were sentenced to death,
but only one in ten were actually executed.
But the elite in society were indifferent to any notions of unequal justice.
They believed capital punishment worked as a deterrent.
And even enlightened thinkers of the time, such as the churchman and philosopher, William Paley,
were able to justify this, even if innocent people were executed.
When he was told that many people were hanged
who didn't deserve it or who might even be innocent,
"Oh!" he said, in a very fine language, of course,
"So what? These people may be deemed to have hanged for England!"
In other words, their deaths were part of the price we had to pay
for social order and deference to the established hierarchy.
This view was supported by the work of German philosopher Immanuel Kant,
who argued that even in a civilised society,
the state had the right to punish the individual.
For Kant, the only purely evil thing is an evil will,
so you measure the seriousness of the crime
by the attitude of the criminal.
For Kant, the death penalty was a moral imperative.
It was a duty, but it was to be done without any emotion.
We did it as a matter of duty.
And, in fact, we celebrate human dignity by executing them,
by saying, "You are a responsible agent.
"You chose to do what you did, and you deserve to die for it.
"We will not look at you as a means to deter others from committing crimes."
He firmly believed that you never use a person as a means to your ends.
Human beings are ends in themselves.
Kant's ideas continued to influence the debate about punishment
into the 19th century and a new Victorian era.
But by the 1830s, the election of the Whigs into government brought a new reforming agenda.
The Reform Act famously gives the vote to the middle classes,
but also a lot of the statutes on the Bloody Code are repealed,
so that by the end of the 1830s, you can hang really only for murder.
Despite this new age of reform, the Victorians were still committed
to retaining the death penalty for those convicted of murder.
But for other, lesser crimes, they wanted a more proportional punishment that fitted the crime,
so a sheep stealer would no longer be treated the same as a murderer.
Punishment ought to be not only proportional,
but by being proportional to the offence, rational.
Measurement, proportionality is one big idea that begins to unseat
the old system that had, of course, gone back for centuries.
Dismantling the Bloody Code had an immediate effect on the Victorian justice system.
Now, juries were more likely to convict in the knowledge that the death penalty no longer applied.
They eliminated capital punishment from rape in 1842
and what happened afterwards is that the conviction rate went straight through the roof.
It went from a modern equivalent of 5% convictions,
to between 13% and 18% conviction rate,
simply because they changed the nature of the punishment associated with that particular crime.
But as conviction rates soared, so too did the Victorians' fear of crime.
This fear came from the presence of a new mass urban population,
which, during the Industrial Revolution,
had migrated to Britain's cities in their thousands.
As you start to have very large numbers of very poor people,
crowded into districts together,
society's becoming much more concerned about criminality,
about the possibility of a criminal underclass,
about the consequences of having so many poor people congregated in very small areas.
One of the other things happening in the early 19th century is
for the first time the government is collecting figures
as to how many people are brought before the courts,
and again, the figures always seem to go up
and of course, we know now the population is rising anyway.
The figures are going up so this helps to contribute to this fear of crime
which is really starting to emerge in the early 19th century.
In 1862, there is a moral panic about mugging
that is precipitated in the newspapers by one solitary event,
when an MP called Pilkington was mugged by a garrotter.
With conviction rates rising, but fewer crimes subject to the death penalty,
the Victorians searched for new ideas about punishment.
Up until now, local jails had just held prisoners before they were punished.
But into the 1840s, as part of a wider expansion of the state
and the ending of transportation as a sentencing option,
the Victorians began to build large prisons across Britain
as places of both punishment and reform.
A new idea of prison, where you have the ordered prisons,
with the sexes separated, different kinds of criminals classified,
being made to perform useful work as part of their punishment,
all in a specially designed building, set apart from the rest of the community.
But those convicted of murder still faced a public execution...
..which, by the mid Victorian era, was coming under attack from an educated elite.
You got prominent publicists as well,
Dickens and Thackeray being probably being the most prominent,
who both attended public executions and both wrote about them.
Both of them were appalled by the behaviour of the people.
"It was so loathsome, pitiful and vile a sight,
"I did not see one token, in all the immense crowd,
"at the windows, in the streets,
"on the housetops, anywhere,
"of any one emotion suitable to the occasion.
"No sorrow, no terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness -
"nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness and flaunting vice."
The public execution is almost a way of saying aggression and violence is acceptable and tolerable
and is promoted by the state and this is the very last thing the Victorians want.
They've got a kind of civilising idea.
It was this disgust at the scene of a public execution
that led to the first real movement to abolish the death penalty.
By the 1840s, there's a really very serious movement
for total abolition of capital punishment in England
that pulls in people like Thackeray.
The argument being that we have other ways of controlling order,
so that we do not need to resort to the sledgehammer control delivered by the noose.
But the vast majority of the population were convinced
that the death penalty should be retained,
and this view was openly supported by the Church of England.
Now capital punishment is a peculiar punishment, because it was justified specifically on biblical terms.
All the arguments were to do with the Bible.
After all, fines, or community service,
or even being put in the stocks don't actually appear in the Bible.
They have killed the image of God, another human being,
and so they will be killed themselves
and that was accepted by practically everyone.
Convinced that the death penalty was sanctioned by God,
the Victorians turned to the newly built prisons to solve the debate over public executions.
It was one of the suggestions of Bishop Wilberforce
that we've got these wonderful prisons,
why don't we put capital punishment into a prison?
In 1868, the last public execution was carried out on British soil.
Michael Barrett, an Irish Republican,
was hanged outside Newgate Prison
while the crowds sang a popular music hall tune, Champagne Charlie.
By moving the gallows into the prison,
the authorities also wanted to introduce a more official and systematic way of killing
which would be carried out by professional hangmen.
But you had the rise of regular hangmen,
one of the things they could do -
and this was developed in a very systematic way -
was they could take the weights and measurements of the person they were going to kill.
They would view them in a prison cell through a loophole
so they could gauge, this person's stocky, this person's thin, this person's 5 foot 3 or whatever.
There were scales and measurements by which you could then judge
how much rope you would use and the quality of the rope.
That would ensure that you neither made it too long,
in which case you might decapitate the person,
or too short, in which case you might strangle the person.
Just the right length should lead to instantaneous death.
Hangmen were now expected to carry out their duties in an orderly and responsible fashion.
One of the concerns that the Home Office had
was the amount of drinking that the executioners used to engage in
and so that was restricted.
From then on, they had to spend the night in the prison before the hanging
and they were only allowed a quarter of a pint of spirits
and a couple of pints of ale the night before.
So it was all much more dignified.
This move towards a dignified system of capital punishment
silenced those voices who had called for the abolition of the public execution.
And once it is proposed to hide the executions in the prison,
the argument is won for sustaining capital punishment
all the way through to the '60s. So it is a key moment.
Had there not been a solution to the problem of the crowd found in the hiding of executions,
the whole thing might have collapsed much earlier than it did.
The Victorian era saw a major shift in how a modern civilised society
maintains order and administers punishment.
The great transformation of punishment in the modern era
moved its locus from the body to the personality.
That is, originally punishment was the infliction of pain and suffering on the body,
and then the Enlightenment came along
and the Enlightenment embraced the idea of human beings as rational.
And instead of inflicting pain and suffering on the body,
we took the great good not to be so much life, as liberty,
so that we now correlate the heinousness of the crime
with a degree of loss of liberty
and instead of inflicting pain and suffering directly on the body,
what we do is deprive people of rights.
For the next 60 years, it appeared that those who supported capital punishment had won the debate.
# Hangman, hangman Hold it a little while
# I think I seen my friends coming
# Riding many a mile... #
Into the first half of the 20th century,
executions continued inside the walls of Britain's prisons,
without any significant opposition.
# What did you bring me my dear friends
# To keep me from the gallows pole? #
While public opinion remained solidly in favour,
only a handful of eccentrics, like the heiress Violet Van Der Elst,
campaigned against the death penalty.
Well, Mrs Van Der Elst was one of those curious figures
in capital punishment, because she was a classic eccentric Englishwoman.
She inherited a lot of money and she decided
not to take up the cause of cats and dogs,
but to take up the cause of capital punishment.
And because of her money and her sense of stage management,
she could ensure big displays wherever she went.
So, for instance, when executions were taking place in prisons,
she would drive up to the prison in a Rolls-Royce.
So she was much more difficult for the authorities to handle,
because you couldn't just sort of knock her out of the way -
A) she was a woman, B) she's rich
C) she's sort of rich and well connected
and she's in a Rolls-Royce!
In some ways, of course, she was a person that proponents of capital punishment could point to and say,
"Well, it's lunatics who are really concerned about this sort of thing."
Kept from view by the authorities, capital punishment was now largely beneath the public's radar.
But this would change in the aftermath of the Second World War.
By executing Nazi war criminals, Britain and its wartime allies
were exacting a visual show of justice.
Over 200 of these executions were carried out by a British hangman,
whose deployment to Germany propelled him into the spotlight.
Of course, in the early part of the 20th century,
the hangman, the executioner, had been an obscure figure.
He was an agent of the state. His identity was covered up.
What made Albert Pierrepoint a celebrity
was not executing people in the 1930s,
it's when he goes off to Nuremburg at the end of the Second World War
and he executes all these Nazi war criminals.
And the press sort of dig and find out his identity
and he becomes a celebrity, because he's, oddly,
a kind of patriotic icon, one of our boys,
who's had the last word in the war by stringing up all these awful Nazis.
That's the way it's presented.
And Pierrepoint then becomes the first and only modern executioner celebrity.
Pierrepoint became a familiar face to British audiences through numerous television interviews.
You always get a new rope and an old rope.
Well, we always choose the old rope if we can,
because a new rope, it seems to lash back. You see what I mean?
The springing of it, you see?
If you get an old one that's been used before -
you've got to examine it well before you use it -
and you leave it with a sandbag on that, the same weight, hanging overnight,
you see? It's all prepared for morning then.
There's a kind of macabre fascination to him, and the reason you have that
is I think because the concept of executing people
has become so detached from people's ordinary lives.
In a very ordered, settled, consensual society,
to be the person who actually carries out the sentence
has this kind of weird exoticism to it and I think that's why he became such a public name.
Did it matter how you attached the rope?
Oh, yes, there's a certain way in doing it...
to be instantaneous, yes, very definitely.
It has on the rope, at the end of a rope, a brass...
brass ring, like, and the rope goes through that, you see,
and you put that under the left jaw,
so when he falls and stops dead, it finishes under the chin...
should finish under the chin as he throws his head back, and breaks the spinal cord.
The British public may have supported the Nuremburg executions,
but by the 1950s, there was increasing disquiet at the continued use of the death penalty.
In 1953, this unease was evident in the case of Derek Bentley.
Bentley, along with his accomplice, Christopher Craig,
were stealing from a warehouse
when they were confronted by the police.
Craig fled, but Bentley was arrested
and was alleged to have shouted, "Let him have it!"
moments before Craig shot dead PC Sidney Miles.
As Craig was only 16, Bentley would hang for the murder.
It also transpired
that Derek Bentley had a mental age of something like 11,
that he came from a rather disturbed background.
These facts were withheld from the jury at the trial.
He had certainly not been the leader in this enterprise
of breaking into this warehouse.
He'd been easily captured by the police
and the police simply said that he had shouted out to Craig
as he came up onto the roof, "Let him have it!"
That was much disputed.
The case rested on the prosecution's assumption that "Let him have it!"
was an encouragement to shoot the policeman, not to hand the gun over.
But many of the public disagreed with this interpretation.
And there was even doubt that he had said this at all.
I think everybody thought that he would be reprieved,
and when he wasn't reprieved, there was a great deal of public concern,
both in the press, but also by people going along to the prison in the morning
and creating a large demonstration.
The apparent injustice led to some public sympathy for Bentley
and to a questioning of the state's right to execute a mandatory death sentence...
..on a vulnerable individual.
I think what that demonstrated
was that, to have a system in which the death penalty was mandatory for murder
and in which everything, every way of trying to classify murders
as those that were death worthy or not death worthy
came down to a political decision of the Secretary of State.
That particular Secretary of State decided that he would not act in favour of Derek Bentley,
so there seemed to be a gross unfairness in the case.
Bentley's case caught the public's attention through its coverage in the press.
Through the 1950s, capital punishment
began to be openly debated on the pages of the nation's newspapers.
Britain had one of the highest rates of newspaper readership in the world
and there's enormous competition between The People,
The News of the World, The Mirror, The Mail, The Express and so on,
and they used those classic kind of Victorian staples
of sex and sensation and murder and whatnot, to sell copies.
In 1955, the press seized on the story of Ruth Ellis,
a young woman sentenced to hang for the murder of her lover.
We have to say there's an element of interest in the fact that it was
an attractive woman, that it was a crime of passion, so called.
She wasn't necessarily a sympathetic person,
in those times when promiscuity was decried even more than today.
She'd had a couple of lovers, she had two children.
There was quite a bit of concern that she just didn't shoot him once, but several times.
But there was a degree of public empathy for Ruth Ellis.
Like the Bentley case two years earlier, people questioned whether
this "crime of passion" should carry a mandatory death sentence.
The idea that a distraught woman acting in a passionate moment
would go to the gallows, I think, caught the public imagination
and made people question whether that was the right thing to be doing to a young woman.
That raised the further question, if it was not right to do it to young women,
was it right to do it to young men?
And so I think the debate, if you look at the papers,
I think she is... and the way her case was treated,
was the catalyst for what would later become a campaign.
Both Bentley and Ellis were hanged
by Britain's chief executioner, Albert Pierrepoint.
Such was the controversial nature of the Ellis and Bentley cases,
that in 1957, the Conservative Government passed the Homicide Act
which introduced the new defences
of provocation and diminished responsibility for murder.
So they brought in that some murders would be
capital murders - what the Americans call first-degree murders,
capital murders, and other murders -
the pub fight, the domestic dispute, or whatever, would not be.
This law resulted in fewer executions,
with only five or six people a year being sent to the gallows.
But the Homicide Act caused confusion.
-'We don't know why some are hanged and some reprieved.
'One Sunday newspaper posed this question and gave these examples.
'Francis Forsyth, 18, murdered Alan Gee as he was walking home.
'He robbed him and kicked him unconscious with his pointed shoes.
'Forsyth was executed.
'But David Deduchar, 21, did much the same thing.
'He battered an old man to death and stole his wallet.
'Deduchar was reprieved.'
Those sort of anomalies convinced quite a lot of people,
including members of the judiciary,
which was the other change that really took place in the '50s and early '60s,
you actually got members of the judiciary thinking that this just wasn't going to work any more.
The debate over capital punishment peaked in December 1964,
when a Labour MP, Sidney Silverman, submitted a Private Member's Bill to Parliament.
Silverman's bill proposed an experiment - the suspension of all executions for five years.
On 21st December 1964, as Parliament debated this bill,
the BBC screened a live debate
between proponents of capital punishment and abolitionists.
In two-and-a-half hours from now, we shall know whether or not
hanging for murder is likely to be abolished in Great Britain.
At this moment, the House of Commons is locked in debate on capital punishment.
There will be a free vote at 11 o'clock.
But I believe this particular penalty for particular people,
namely professional criminals, is the one real deterrent.
That argument about deterrence is the standard argument
that has been put for 150 years in respect of every form
of capital punishment and has always been proved wrong.
Astonishing, that Henry Rook should bring testimony today
to say that he's now convinced
that that particular argument cannot be borne out...
Later that evening, Sidney Silverman's bill was passed by 200 votes to 98.
But it didn't reflect public opinion on the issue.
Despite much sympathy for cases like Bentley and Ellis,
there was still widespread support for capital punishment.
In polls in the 1960s, people said
the one thing about the whole of the 1960s that they disliked most
was the abolition of the death penalty.
So what you have effectively is an elite driven,
kind of liberal establishment project to reform the death penalty.
That comes from education and from a different moral outlook and whatnot,
but it also rests on something that we simply don't have today,
which is a sense that the people in Parliament know better. They know best!
And they are not dependant on the kind of popular will, if you like,
on popular opinion for their mandate.
So, in a funny way, the abolition of the death penalty would be impossible in today's Parliament.
It was something only possible in the '50s and '60s,
because they didn't have that kind of populist, political culture that we have today.
Despite Parliament's ruling, the debate over capital punishment
continued to rage throughout the 1960s.
And they were expecting that if you could abolish it at Parliament,
that you could also bring it back through Parliament.
So naturally enough, any high-profile case,
especially one which might, as it were, lead to at least bringing it back partially,
say for the murder of policemen, or for a particularly violent set of murders.
These were leapt on by newspapers in order to try and reverse the decision.
In October 1965, less than a year after abolition,
the resolve of Parliament would be tested by one of the most notorious murder cases of the 20th century.
We think of the mid '60s as this great utopian, happy-go-lucky,
kind of orgiastic age where everyone is having a great time.
In fact, the mid '60s was a much more anxious, darker time than we remember.
In what would become known as the Moors Murders,
Ian Brady and Myra Hindley kidnapped,
tortured and killed five children,
burying them in shallow graves on Saddleworth Moor.
-On these bleak and desolate moorlands,
1,600ft up in the Pennines, senior police officers believe
they'll find two more bodies, possibly a third.
It's impossible to overstate how shocking those crimes were,
particularly when the tapes were played in court,
then reported in the newspapers.
At their trial, there was public outrage
when a tape recording was played to the court
of Brady and Hindley torturing 10-year-old Leslie Ann Downey.
And that means that within a year of the suspension of the death penalty,
you have newspaper columnists and particularly people in the pub,
people on the street corners, or whatnot,
calling for the death penalty to be brought back, because if there are kind of two people
who to people in he 1960s seem ideal candidates for the hangman's noose,
it's Brady and Hindley.
The overwhelming majority wanted to see Brady and Hindley hang for their crimes.
But public pressure could not convince the government.
Brady and Hindley were both sentenced to life imprisonment.
A life sentence for murder was now mandatory,
following the suspension of the death penalty in 1965.
The mandatory life sentence was brought in
as a condition of abolishing the death penalty.
Those who opposed abolition were told by those who advocated it
and who in the end prevailed
that they would always be safeguarded, because there would be this mandatory life sentence.
The mandatory life sentence was aimed at extending
the amount of time a convicted murderer could be in prison for.
In the days of capital punishment, those reprieved -
and that was the majority of murderers who were reprieved -
served sentences considerably lower than they would serve today,
despite the media thinking we are soft on crime.
Craig, who couldn't be sentenced to the hangman because of his age,
when Bentley was executed, served 11 or 12 years
for the shooting of a police officer.
Now, even as a 16-year-old, he would probably serve a minimum of 25.
So the sentence doubled!
In fact, under today's tariff system,
some prisoners serving life sentences are eligible for early parole.
But this raises its own moral questions about
how the state punishes individuals, like Harry Roberts,
who's been locked up for 44 years,
convicted after the murder of three policemen in 1966.
I think it's extremely cruel to lock someone up forever, but in a slightly different way
from executing them, because it's the gift that keeps on giving, if you see what I mean.
You're in prison maybe for 40 or 50 years.
Harry Roberts, the man who murdered three policemen in Shepherd's Bush,
is still in jail after 44 years.
I happen to believe he should still be there, because he committed three very, very nasty gratuitous murders.
And if you let someone like Harry Roberts out - and there's been talk about doing so -
you are effectively saying to others who might want to kill the police,
"He was away for 44 years, but in the end it's forgive and forget."
Wouldn't it be the mark of a more humane society to execute him?
And if that means dealing, through the state,
in a final way with someone who has committed the most grave crime,
then I don't see that that's a problem.
Well, I counter that by simply pointing out
that as a matter of logic, it's much worse for an individual
to spend the rest of their life in prison than to be executed immediately.
I don't take the view that there is, somewhere down there, a hell
that all bad people are going to be tortured by,
I think, you know, if they are turned off, that's an end on it.
And why give them the benefit of being turned off like that,
when they could be made...punished for the rest of their lives?
I think it's a far worse punishment, life imprisonment,
because they suffer. They suffer!
In 1969, Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour
of permanently abolishing the death penalty for murder.
Two years later, capital punishment was also removed for arson in a Royal Naval dockyard.
Now hanging only remained for treason and piracy.
Britain's new position was soon followed by other western countries, like France and Spain,
which, through the 1970s, would also stop using the death penalty.
Even the USA, which hadn't executed anyone since 1967,
suspended capital punishment in 1972.
In America, the instrument for the temporary abolition of the death penalty was not Congress,
it was the Supreme Court - the one part of the government of America
which is not susceptible to re-election.
It was that body that actually declared
that at least the process of executions in America was unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court's decision infuriated the majority of Americans.
Private papers of the Chief Justice who was in the dissent
indicate he thought that was the end of the death penalty in America
as did most abolitionists who thought they'd won their permanent victory.
They couldn't have been more wrong.
And the states immediately, responding to overwhelmingly public support for the death penalty,
and outrage at the United States Supreme Court decision, re-enacted death penalty statutes.
In 1976, the Supreme Court was forced to review its decision
in response to widespread public pressure.
Less than two years ago, death cells in prisons throughout America
were emptied when the Supreme Court ruled against capital punishment.
The Court decided it was unconstitutional,
because it was a cruel and unusual form of punishment, in the sense that it was so arbitrary.
Some people would be sentenced to death and others merely to a term of imprisonment for the same offence.
Now, the Court is having to think again, and while it's doing so,
death rows throughout the country are filling up again.
The Supreme Court voted to reinstate capital punishment.
And in 1977, Gary Gilmore became the first person to be executed in the US for ten years.
Gilmore eventually insisted that the State of Utah put him to death.
So he was the first of many volunteers from death row,
basically people who could save their own lives
by continuing to appeal
and to have their cases reviewed and have their cases delayed, he took the opposite path.
He volunteered, the State of Utah put him to death and from that day onwards, the execution pattern began
once again in the USA, very slowly at first.
In 1977, there was only two, and in the 1980s, there were a handful each year,
but by the end of the 1990s, there was almost 100 people being put to death each year.
Gilmore was executed by a firing squad in Utah.
Since then, other US States have chosen to use the gas chamber
or lethal injection to carry out death sentences.
Gilmore's execution hit the headlines in the British Press
and inspired some British lawyers to offer to cross the Atlantic
and help defend those facing the death penalty.
Through the 1980s, British lawyers, like Clive Stafford Smith,
took up cases that challenged America's right to execute.
In a fair world, you are going to win, but the world isn't always a fair...
'I'd become obsessed'
with the death penalty and this was from quite a young age.
I was very young when I was writing something about it,
I was about 16 at school and I thought it was a history paper,
I thought the death penalty was history.
When I discovered that the Americans were still killing each other, I was really shocked.
A death row inmate is scheduled to die in the gas chamber in two weeks...
In 1987, a BBC documentary followed Clive Stafford Smith,
who had volunteered to act as the lawyer for a man on death row in Mississippi.
14 Days In May captured his attempts to stop Edward Earl Johnson being executed.
The funny thing is, I think about a future.
Now that might seem crazy - what future could I possibly have
knowing that I might supposedly be executed in the next two weeks?
Despite evidence suggesting Johnson was innocent,
he was executed in a gas chamber on 20th May 1987.
Ladies and gentlemen,
at 12.06am, Wednesday, May 20th, Edward Earl Johnson was executed
in the lethal gas chamber here at the Mississippi State Penitentiary
in conformance with the sentence
of the Circuit Court of Lee County.
Sitting there, watching him be gassed to death in the gas chamber was just horrific.
In a way, the fact that there were cameras there made it slightly easier,
because you thought this was a movie or something and someone would call "Cut!" and it would all be over,
but I think that's what Edward thought and it made it a little easier for him, perhaps.
When the family asked me why,
all I could say was, "It's a sick world, it's a sick world!" Thank you.
14 Days In May was one of a number of British documentaries
which attacked capital punishment in America.
These films helped shape the ongoing debate in the UK.
When you see documentaries of people on death row in America, which are fantastically common,
you get the feeling that this is contributing to the debate here,
reflecting liberal opinion here,
but probably not actually reflecting
what the majority of the population believe.
I don't think it's changed their minds in any way.
In many ways, as so often with these things, it's the liberal elite speaking to the liberal elite.
While British programme makers used the American experience to highlight the flaws in capital punishment,
in the UK itself, there was rising public demand that Britain, too, should begin executing again.
For the first time since abolition, Britain had a Prime Minister,
Margaret Thatcher, who supported the death penalty,
and MPs were given a free vote on the subject throughout the 1980s.
When I first came into Parliament,
there was still, certainly in the public domain,
quite an active debate going on about the death penalty,
because it was the height of the IRA outrages.
Innocent people were dying in random terror acts and people were saying,
"Even if you don't bring it back for anything else, at least bring it back for terrorism."
So there was still quite a lively debate about whether it should be brought back.
When there was a free vote on the death penalty, I always voted for restoration,
because I do believe there's a very strong moral case
for saying that such a deterrent should be available.
This government will never surrender to the IRA. Never!
Really all of that was really smashed
at the end of the '80s and '90s
when, of course, the government had to confront the fact
that in the cases of the Irish terrorists,
particularly the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four,
that all of these people had been exonerated on the basis that they had not had a fair trial
and that...the evidence was not sufficient to convict.
In 1991, the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four were declared innocent
and released after spending almost two decades in prison.
I've been in prison 15 years for something I didn't do,
for something I didn't know anything about.
Had Britain retained the death penalty then,
they would have almost certainly faced execution.
Whether it's Guildford Four, Birmingham Six, Judith Ward, Tottenham Three and so on,
in many of these cases,
what transpired was that...
there was a...a flawed system.
Now, you can't have a final verdict, like an execution,
where you haven't got an infallible system, which means that
there's a serious risk you are going to, as it were, kill innocent people.
It was cases of miscarriages of justice like these
that persuaded many in government that Britain could never reinstate capital punishment.
In 1994, the last free vote took place in Parliament on reintroducing the death penalty.
It was heavily defeated, with Home Secretary Michael Howard
now voting in favour of retaining abolition.
For a long time, I supported capital punishment,
because I thought it was a deterrent,
and actually I still think it is a deterrent,
but I changed my mind, because of the risk of a mistake.
It was the cases of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four
that changed my mind on that.
I accepted that you could never completely eliminate the risk of mistake
and since then, I've become adverse as well to the whole idea
of the state deliberately taking someone's life.
But it wasn't until 1998, when the Labour government passed the Crime and Disorder Act,
that the death penalty was completely removed from British Law.
Up until then, executions could still be carried out for treason and piracy.
Later that year, the Court of Appeal quashed the 1953 conviction of Derek Bentley
and he was posthumously pardoned.
By 2010, 139 countries had abolished the death penalty.
We are seeing a greater polarisation in the world.
We are seeing a wide gap between the mental make-up
of those people in the countries that oppose the death penalty
and the people in the countries that see no problem with it.
Surprisingly, the country that has the highest cases of capital punishment per capita is Singapore.
But it is believed the country that executes the most people per year is China.
The trouble with China is that it's still a state secret
and the party will not reveal the number of people sentenced to death and executed. So we have no idea,
really, how many people are put to death there.
But at the UN Human Rights Council, at the end of 2007,
the Chinese delegate made a statement
that China was reducing its use of the death penalty
and was setting plans to do so, with the ultimate aim of abolishing it.
Now, this is a statement really from the state, the state authority, that abolition is a goal.
We haven't heard that from the United States, I'm sorry to say, from a State Department.
But even in America today, the use of capital punishment is a lot less widespread.
It's also true that, amongst the 35 states that have the death penalty,
about a third never use it,
another third impose death sentences but rarely carry them out,
and the death sentences that are carried out
are typically in one region of the nation, that is to say the South.
These days, more than half of the death sentences that are executed occur in Texas.
So, is America a death-penalty nation? Well, in parts.
In 2010, those American states which continue to use the death penalty have been challenged over whether
executing an individual in a painful manner infringes their human rights.
This debate could see the end of the death penalty in America.
But its supporters have gone back to 18th-century ideas of punishment
to defend the right to execute.
To say that it has to be painless is to lose sight of what it is,
which is punishment.
In its etymology, in its very meaning,
the word "punishment" comes from the same root as "pain".
It is, in its essential conception, painful.
If it is not painful, it is not punishment.
When killers intentionally, or with depraved indifference,
inflict intense pain and suffering on their victims,
in my view, they should die a quick but painful death.
Not torture, not drawn out,
but quick and painful.
The debate about capital punishment has raged for over 200 years.
Both sides believe they are in the right.
And if the history of capital punishment has taught us one thing...
..it's that both sides will continue to fight their corner, passionately.
To challenge your views and learn more about the justice system,
go to bbc.co.uk/justice and follow the links to the Open University.
Timeshift digs into the archive to trace the extraordinary story of the ultimate sanction. At the beginning of the 19th century you could still be hanged in Britain for offences such as stealing a sheep or shooting a rabbit. Even children as young as seven were sent to the gallows. The last hanging in this country took place as recently as 1964.
By opting for a dispassionate history rather than staging the usual polarised debate, the programme breaks new ground with its fascinating attention to detail, such as the protocols of the public execution or the 'science' of hanging. With contributions from both sides of the argument, it provides an essential guide to a subject that still divides us.