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Mrs. Peacock : I have been listening carefully to my right hon. and learned Friend. If my understanding is correct, he has said that it would not be right to ask the Court of Appeal to make such a judgment as I am proposing, as it would not have had the benefit of seeing all the evidence and hearing the witnesses. However, at present the Attorney-General can appeal against a lenient sentence and have it changed by the Court of Appeal in very similar circumstances.
Mr. Howard : My hon. Friend is right to advance that argument, but the analogy that she draws is less than wholly convincing. Her new clause would give the Court of Appeal jurisdiction over not only sentence but categorisation of various types of murder. Those are
Column 44different questions from those that the Court of Appeal has to address in connection with what has become since 1988 the more conventional matter of appeals against lenient sentences, which are considered on the reference of the Attorney-General.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) : To pursue the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock), British judges are currently available to act, in their capacity as members of the Privy Council, as a final court of appeal for people charged with murder in a number of former colonies, including several West Indian countries. Do not the same problems arise in those cases ? The judges have not seen the defendant and have not been present at the original trial, but they continue to make judgments that may lead to execution.
Mr. Howard : The judges do not make a judgment about which categories of murder merit the death penalty. They may consider appeals against conviction or, in certain circumstances, even appeals against sentence, but the new clause will give the Court of Appeal the task of deciding which categories of the offence of murder merit the death penalty. That is not something which the Privy Council has to decide at the moment. According to the statement of the Lord Chief Justice, it is not a matter on which the Court of Appeal wants to decide. If there were to be such categorisation, Parliament should accept responsibility for it and not the judges. It is not a responsibility which Parliament should seek to hand over to the judges.
Mr. Marlow : I have just read with some care the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock). Where does it say anything about categorisation ? If the new clause were accepted, the House would be saying to judges that the sentence for murder should be execution. The judges in the Court of Appeal would then be able to decide whether there were special circumstances whereby clemency should be exercised and an alternative sentence imposed. The new clause contains nothing about categorisation.
Mr. Howard : With respect to my hon. Friend, the new clause does not say anything about special circumstances. I do not know whether it was the intention of my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen to include such provision in the new clause. She did not say anything along those lines when she introduced the new clause. It does not provide the new approach that the death penalty should, as a rule, be carried out in all cases of murder save where there are special circumstances. In its present form, the new clause would inevitably involve some degree of categorisation and I do not think that that is an appropriate responsibility for Parliament to hand over to the judges.
Mrs. Peacock : I accept what my hon. and learned Friend said, although I do not believe that that is what the new clause said. I should be more than willing, however, to accept his wording of such a clause and vote for that instead.
Mr. Howard : No, no--I was replying to the arguments advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow). I suggested to him that the particular meaning that he was seeking to give to the new clause was not supported by the new clause as drafted. Other different
Column 45difficulties would arise if a new clause were drafted in the way suggested by him. I would explain those difficulties were they to arise from the wording of the new clause.
Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South) : I have listened with great interest to the speeches, especially that of my right hon. and learned Friend. It appears that we cannot prove that capital punishment is a deterrent against homicide, murder, manslaughter and infanticide. It must follow that life imprisonment, as it is now constituted, does not act as a deterrent, or cannot be proved to do so. What does act as a deterrent ?
Mr. Howard : I said earlier that I thought that, although the statistics were not entirely conclusive, the death penalty would constitute a deterrent, but that is not the end of the matter, as I shall now explain.
In this debate, my views count only as the views of one Member of Parliament and I do not propose to expound them at length. I set out my position in an article published in March 1991, nearly three years ago, in the wake of the Birmingham Six case. Until, and including, 1990, I had voted consistently for the return of capital punishment for the murder of police or prison officers, or for murder committed with firearms or explosives. I thought that the deterrent effect would be greatest in those categories. I justified that position on the basis that a wide-ranging appeal process in capital cases would effectively eliminate the risk of a miscarriage of justice. Such a procedure, however, was adopted in the Birmingham Six case and it failed to identify any irregularities. It failed to do the job that I thought it would do, a job which I thought was essential if capital punishment was to be restored. That led me to re- examine my position and inform my constituents about it nearly three years ago. The tragic case of Stefan Kiszko, who sadly died just before Christmas, has provided a more recent reinforcement of that view. In 1976, Mr. Kiszko was convicted of the murder of a school girl--a crime to which he had confessed. His conviction was quashed in 1992 after forensic tests proved that he could not have been the murderer. There are cases, particularly where the suspect has for whatever reason confessed, where avenues of appeal are not explored or pursued until new evidence comes to light.
Miscarriages of justice are a blot on a civilised society. For someone to spend years in prison for a crime he or she did not commit is both a terrible thing and one for which release from prison and financial recompense cannot make amends. But even that injustice cannot be compared with the icy comfort of a posthumous pardon. When we consider the plight of those who have been wrongly convicted, we cannot but be relieved that the death penalty was not available. We should not fail to consider the irreparable damage that would have been inflicted on the criminal justice system had innocent people been executed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale referred to the proposal of the Royal Commission on criminal justice that a criminal cases review authority should be established. The Government intend to set up such an organisation and I hope to consult soon on the detail of its constitution, but new machinery can never provide a complete answer. The fault lies not in the machinery but in the fallibility and frailty of human judgment.
I understand the concern felt by right hon. and hon. Members and the public about the rise in crime, and in
Column 46violent crime in particular. Since I became Home Secretary nearly nine months ago, I have made no secret of my determination to turn that concern into action. That is why the Bill is before the Committee today. That action will be taken, but, for the reasons that I have given, I do not believe that the restoration of capital punishment should be part of it. That is why I shall vote against the two new clauses in the names of my hon. Friends.
Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield) : On moral, as well as on practical and utilitarian grounds, I oppose both new clauses. But whatever disagreements I have with the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) about the new clause, I share his views on the three principles, on which he hoped all hon. Members would agree, involving the murder of police officers.
I understand why a majority of my constituents, and perhaps a majority of people in the country, will answer yes to the question, "Do you favour the death penalty ?" They are angry and outraged at the murders and killings in our society. However, I should like the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) to reflect on the fact that, in every debate on the subject that I have witnessed, the value of the debate has become obvious as it has proceeded and as we have moved from general and instantaneous reactions to the particular and the considered. Suddenly, answers that appeared obvious become more complex and conclusions that seemed certain are open to doubt. Such a large majority of Members did not vote against the restoration of the death penalty on each occasion because they were unaware of their constituents' views, but because, on reflection and after considered debate, they could not support those views.
The most powerful argument against restoration--an argument that would be enough in itself--is the risk of killing the innocent and of a miscarriage of justice. I support what the Home Secretary said a few minutes ago and will briefly return to the subject
Mr. Lord : The hon. Gentleman began by saying that he had no doubt that most of his constituents would probably support the reintroduction of the death penalty. Is he saying that his understanding, and that of the Committee if it refuses to vote for the death penalty, is greater than that of his constituents ? Is it not also possible that all such major issues are essentially simple ? We make them complicated so that we do not have to face them.
Mr. Blair : With respect, we have to face them and we are doing so this afternoon. I certainly do not believe that my understanding is superior to that of my constituents, but, as the hon. Member for Batley and Spen was fair enough to acknowledge when she moved her new clause, we are representatives, not delegates, and we must act according to our conscience.
The utilitarian argument against the restoration of the death penalty--the argument about miscarriages of justice--is the most powerful, but it is by no means the only practical argument against. Another argument that is sometimes forgotten is illustrated by the nature of the two new clauses under discussion.
The clause tabled by the hon. Member for Batley and Spen is general and that of the hon. Member for Ryedale is particular, in that it applies only to the murder of police officers. The choice illustrates the practical problem that faces everyone, even those who support the death penalty
Column 47in principle. How does one distinguish, on a rational rather than an arbitrary basis, those homicides that should attract the death penalty and those that should not ?
Sir Nicholas Fairbairn : To widen the hon. Gentleman's argument, which is correct, if one introduces the death penalty for shooting and killing someone, should not one also apply it for shooting at--but missing- -a person ? Perhaps one should receive an additional sentence for being a bad shot.
Since no one suggests that all murders should result in the death penalty, there must be a basis for distinction. If statute provides that all murders should attract the death penalty, someone--the Home Secretary or the Court of Appeal--has to make the final decision and discretion becomes too wide.
However, if statute defines the categories, there is a substantial risk of arbitrary decisions of a different sort and of murders that are equally heinous attracting different penalties. That is underlined by our history and that of the United States. When I researched the subject, I found it interesting to note that decisions on the constitution made by the US Supreme Court hinged to a considerable degree on the difficulty of establishing a blanket penalty of death for murder--a penalty which would be applied by juries in different cases in different ways.
Until 1965, the debate in Britain also hinged on that subject. For four decades of royal commissions, Select Committees and debates in the House, the debate revolved around attempts to distinguish between various types of homicide. The royal commission of 1953 concluded that
"the outstanding defect of the law of murder is it provides a single punishment for a crime widely varying in culpability". It went on to discuss various murders in England and Scotland. The Homicide Act 1957 was passed in recognition of that fact, because a general penalty for murder was thought to be unacceptable. The 1957 Act betrays its era. For example, Ruth Ellis would have hanged even after that Act because she shot her lover. If she had knifed him, she would not have hanged. I think that I am also right in saying that, under the 1957 Act, neither Myra Hindley nor the Yorkshire Ripper would have hanged.
When Parliament debated the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965, no one supported the continuance of the 1957 Act because of the distinctions that it drew and the difficulty of enforcing them, yet those distinctions had been the dominant subject for debate for almost four decades preceding the 1965 Act.
The problem is that the circumstances of murders are infinitely different, but the difference between the death penalty and any other penalty--even life imprisonment--is absolute. Death is death. There is no revoking that sentence once it is carried out--no recall, no commutation and no pardon, except posthumously.
Virtually all the attempts to legislate--even those made by people who accept the principle of the death penalty--have fallen foul of that problem. The hon. Member for Batley and Spen attempts to circumvent it by providing a general application of the death penalty for murder, but
Column 48allowing the Court of Appeal to decide whether it should be carried out. Quite apart from the formidable logistical problems of reviewing all cases in which there is a conviction for murder, I agree entirely with the Home Secretary that it cannot be right to abdicate to that court the responsibility for deciding whether death is appropriate in each case. The hon. Lady cannot avoid the fact that categorisations would have to be made and that they would be made arbitrarily and would vary from court to court, from time to time, and probably from newspaper coverage to newspaper coverage.
The new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Ryedale applies the death penalty to the murder of police officers. That is a heinous crime, but so are terrorist killings--blowing people up in a pub--and the rape of young girls, followed by their brutal murder. If the death penalty were appropriate to one such crime it would be appropriate to all.
However, the Home Secretary dwelt on the most practical argument against the restoration of the death penalty towards the end of his speech. That argument concerns the risk of a miscarriage of justice if the death penalty is carried out. Although the hon. Member for Batley and Spen involves the Court of Appeal in the process to guard against the possibility of a miscarriage of justice, in virtually all the cases that we have discussed that court had considered and dismissed the appeals of those convicted and their convictions were quashed only when evidence emerged at a much later date. That fact is important. When people are asked about the death penalty they consider it in the abstract. They assume that guilt can be proved absolutely--they assume, as a given, that the person is genuinely guilty. But experience has taught us the fallibility of the process of establishing guilt. The given in the answer is, in fact, not given at all.
The House of Commons Library note has a list of some 32 separate cases where, since 1965, miscarriages of justice have been shown. Besides the well-known Guildford and Birmingham convictions, the case of Stefan Kiszko stands out, because he would unquestionably have been hanged, but he was unquestionably innocent. The power to review would not have saved him.
Mr. John Sykes (Scarborough) : Throughout the debate I have listened to hon. Members speak about the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Seven-- [Hon. Members :-- "Six."] I beg hon. Members' pardon. Not once have I heard anyone mention the Birmingham 21, those young men and women who died. How I wish from the depths of my heart that the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) would speak for those who no longer have a voice. Had the death penalty been available then, that crime might not have been committed.
Mr. Blair : With respect, that is not a worthy intervention. The Opposition speak up for the victims of crime. When the hon. Member for Ryedale moved his new clause, the Home Secretary and I, and all hon. Members, commented on the appalling nature of such crimes. To convict the wrong people in the Birmingham case was not the answer to the problem. The power of review would not have saved them. With hindsight, we may be able to see the flaws in that case, but I ask the hon. Member for Scarborough (Mr. Sykes) to think back and remember the time when those cases were in the news. At that time, people seemed certain
Column 49about those charged. At that time, the newspaper coverage of those trials was clear. Had the new clauses been in operation then, would the clamour have been one of doubt or of mercy ? Would the newspapers have carried editorials pleading for clemency ? The noise would have been one way, motivated by an entirely righteous detestation of those crimes. The death penalty would have been demanded and it would have been given. If any court had stood in the way of that, it would have been pilloried. If any Home Secretary had reprieved those people, he would have been pilloried. That is the truth. We cannot ignore that when we consider those cases.
Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one other offshoot of the faulty decision at the Birmingham trial was that those who carried out the murder of those 21 people have never been detected or convicted and never will be because of the delay ?
Mr. Gallie : The hon. Gentleman has suggested that Stefan Kiszko would have been hanged if the new clauses had been in operation. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that that would not have happened if the new clause of my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr.Greenway) had been in operation ? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that perhaps, had the death penalty been an option, the Birmingham trial would have taken more careful account of the details and studied the evidence in more detail ?
Mr. Blair : With respect, that is a classic judgment of hindsight. The feature that runs through all those cases is that, at the time, they were not open to doubt. In the Kiszko case, he confessed. The doubt that arose came to light long after the trial.
Perhaps the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) did not mean it, but the implication behind his question is that somehow judges or juries are somewhat casual because the death penalty does not exist. He is wrong. They study cases with the greatest of scrutiny. What stands out so powerfully about the cases that I have cited is that people were certain and that "beyond reasonable doubt" meant just that. Doubts, of course, arose later.
Mr. Mullin : Has my hon. Friend noticed that many of those who are strongest in their demands for the death penalty are least concerned about the possibility of mistakes ? Judging from the muttering from the Conservative Benches, it is clear that, even in this debate, some Conservative Members have not yet faced up to the fact that the wrong people were convicted in the Birmingham and Guildford cases, as well as in others.
Mr. Blair : I very much hope that all Conservative Members share the abhorrence felt by everyone who believes in justice at the possibility of wrongful conviction and miscarriages of justice. The proponents of the death penalty can rightly point to the innocent victims who were killed by those who might have been hanged for one murder, but who, after imprisonment, committed further murders. I do not intend to add to what the Home Secretary said about that, but he provided a pretty telling dissection of the notion that many murders fit into that category. What at first blush appeared to be 76 cases was then whittled down to four. I do not
Column 50discount that number and I accept that four is too many, but they must weigh in the balance. The case that was put is not as clear as it was.
The ultimate argument in favour of the death penalty--it is important that those of us who are opposed to the death penalty should deal with it--is that it may deter some from killing where, otherwise, they might have killed. I should like to put it in a slightly different way from that put by Conservative Members. It could be argued that the death penalty is not about taking life but trying to save it from those who might otherwise have murdered. The most that can be said when examining the evidence is that it is uncertain. It is true that, since 1965, the number of homicides has risen, but the level of crime and violent crime has also risen dramatically. There is no evidence, statistical or otherwise, that that rise has been attributable to the abolition of the death penalty.
The experience in the United States points in different directions, from different states. The death penalty is regularly used in certain states, yet the murder rate is still very high. The international comparisons yield little. Conservative Members who favour the death penalty should consider the evidence that, in the end, one has to weigh in the scales. There may be certain instances--we do not know and we cannot quantify them--in which people are deterred. I do not exclude that possibility, but we must weigh that against the fact that evidence of deterrence is uncertain, whereas evidence of miscarriages is certain and they have happened, beyond any doubt. When we place against the irrefutable evidence of the potential for miscarriages of justice those other matters, the argument is one way.
Mr. Lord rose
"lies, damned lies and statistics."
Everyone has his own statistics to prove what he wants to prove. In all sincerity, however, does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is pure common sense that criminals going out to rob or to do mischief may think twice before taking a gun or a knife with them if they know that the sentence of capital punishment is available to the courts ?
Mr. Blair : No, for the very reasons given by the royal commission more than 40 years ago, when it first considered the matter. It is not that statistics can tell all sorts of different stories ; the most powerful feature about the statistics gathered here, in the United States and virtually everywhere is that they tell no story. I do not ignore what the hon. Gentleman has said, but it must be weighed in the scales of what we know has happened for a certainty in our country. The hon. Gentleman must face up to the fact that, according to his proposals, those miscarriages would have meant that innocent people would
Column 51have been killed in circumstances where that should not have happened. In that case, even the utilitarian case for the death penalty is not made out.
The death penalty cannot be justified, even on the grounds claimed by some hon. Members. But it is also wrong in principle. It is a response to evil that is evil itself. It is to act, as a society, not in justice but in anger ; not in reason but for revenge. No matter how clothed it is in the legal process and however much it is attended by all the trappings of the law, it cannot disguise its real nature, which is cruel and barbaric. We do not uphold the sanctity of human life by taking it, or underline its precious nature by snuffing it out.
The death penalty does not elevate, inspire or help us attain a better society. We were right to get rid of it almost 30 years ago and we should not, now of all times and after all that has happened within our judicial system, restore it. Let it lie in history where it belongs.
Sir Rhodes Boyson (Brent, North) : May I take up the point made by the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) about whether it is right for society to have a death penalty? Since Roman times, and even before, the issue of the death penalty has been debated time and again. Nobody can say that the Roman or Greek societies were uncivilised. Indeed, nor were the school men of medieval times. They all reached the conclusion that people have the right--the state consists of people--to take the lives of those who have taken the lives of others.
The matter can be studied in the Mosaic code, from which one of the greatest civilisations grew. It is to be found in the writings of Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, and I remind hon. Members who are members of the Church of England of the content of the 39 articles. The 37th article gives the state the right to take the life of an individual with the agreement of the people within that state. Human nature has not so improved in the past 150 years that we can say that we are now so civilised that we have passed that stage. Whether one is a creationist or a fundamentalist, one cannot say that human nature has changed since God breathed on man in the garden of Eden. Human nature remains static.
Sir Rhodes Boyson : I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a minute. Once I have talked my full argument through, it may help him. We both have hair on our faces, so we obviously agree on major issues. I may lead him to the truth bit by bit.
It is arrogant of us to believe that we are now so civilised that we can turn our backs on all the wisdom of the past. I support capital punishment being available because human nature has remained static. I shall now give way to the hon. Gentleman who looks like me, but at the beginning of civilisation.
Would the right hon. Gentleman care to reflect on a quotation from Christ :
"It was said to you of old, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, love one another"?
Sir Rhodes Boyson : I have already shown my friendship with the hon. Gentleman and thus illustrated "love one another". But it also means that the whole of humankind should love one another. It does not mean that we should lay down and let people do what they want or threaten others. There is no loving in that. If bringing back capital punishment would result in greater safety for people in society, we have a right to bring it back. Throughout the ages, religious leaders of all types have ultimately come down on the side of capital punishment.
"If I have committed a crime worthy of death, I refuse not to die"?
Sir Rhodes Boyson : It is a marvellous double negative. I bow to the hon. Gentleman on that. Before we have quotations going backwards and forwards across the Chamber like the Book of Proverbs, let me say that we can all dig up instances but must make our judgment on the general. Throughout history civilised societies, whether or not they have liked the death penalty, have kept it because they considered it a necessity. I follow them because I believe that it is a necessity. May I deal with the narrow issue of the police? Unless we bring back capital punishment for anyone who kills a policeman, we risk having more arms on the streets. The police will demand more arms and, by the time we have finished, our society will be like an old Yankee film, with small guns and machine guns on the streets. Policemen's wives will ensure that their husbands demand arms because they will want them to come home for their sake and that of their children, and society will grant that. There will be an escalation of weapons in our society because criminals can always get them. I have always said that the only people who cannot obtain weapons are law-abiding citizens.
If hon. Members do not want to vote for capital punishment, they should vote for life imprisonment that does not come to an end after a time but means imprisonment for life. I do not agree with those who oppose capital punishment, but, logically, they must support life imprisonment for anyone who kills a policeman.
We have heard arguments about whether we should bow down to the views of the people. One hon. Member quoted Burke, who said that he was a representative and not a delegate. I remind hon. Members that he then lost the following election. People should not read just the first chapter of a book. Members of Parliament risk distancing themselves from the views of people outside. We are becoming less representative on this matter. If tonight we turn down the option for capital punishment and reduce the age of consent for homosexuality, tomorrow the gap between hon. Members and people in the country will be even greater. I do not say that we should do everything that they want, but we should listen to them.
May I end where I began? Given that every civilised society in history has reached the conclusion that capital punishment is necessary for the preservation of life, who are we, given the present crime rates and the state of the world, to say that we are better than our ancestors? Tonight, I shall vote for the return of capital punishment with a clear conscience, on religious and civil grounds.
Mr. Mallon : I remind hon. Members that we have a free vote on this matter. The reason for the tradition of a free vote on it is that it involves not just legal, political or practical issues, but, as the right hon. Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) said, an element of morality. In the few minutes available to me, I shall approach the matter on that basis.
I do so not least because of the legal arguments that were eloquently made by previous speakers, which it would be pointless to repeat.
I have a special interest in this issue and have spoken in debates dealing with it since I first became a Member. My interest stems largely from the fact that I live in an area in which capital punishment is exercised almost every day of the week. In the society in which I live, more than 3,000 people have been killed by those who have abrogated to themselves the right to do that which some hon. Members believe the state should do to others. I find that repulsive. If one takes the number of people who have died in Northern Ireland, on a pro rata basis 18,000 people in England, Scotland and Wales would have been killed over the past few years.
I know the effect that that form of capital punishment has on the families of victims--not least, the family of the young policeman who was killed last weekend--and of those who carry out such acts. I know the effect that it has on that part of the community from which the person who pulled the trigger and his victim came. I know the effect on those charged with enforcing the law and with implementing the legal and judicial system. The effect can never be quantified. There are no statistics, but that effect has eaten into the heart and soul of the community in which I live--and it stems from the abrogation of the right to take the life of another human being.
I know also what it is like to be under sentence of death. Every hon. Member who represents a Northern Ireland constituency has been and is under sentence of death from one terrorist group or another in the north of Ireland. The chilling words of interviews given by loyalist prisoners at the weekend explain why this subject is close to the lives of my hon. Friends and those whom we represent.
Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton) : The hon. Gentleman was not in the House in 1975, when it debated a motion calling for the restoration of capital punishment for terrorist offences causing death. I clearly remember the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) saying that if the state did not restore capital punishment so that some deterrence existed for those in the south who were murdering in the north, it would not be long before the loyalists of the north would use terrorism to wreak their revenge on people in the south. Is that not precisely what has happened because we did not restore capital punishment for such offences?
Mr. Mallon : The hon. and learned Gentleman is right : I was not present in the House in 1975, for the good reason that I had not been elected. I was present for a subsequent debate on the same issue, when the question was raised of the enormity of having the death penalty in a society in which there is no jury but only one person--the judge--hearing the case. Even someone committed to restoring the death penalty would have second thoughts about that. As a lawyer, the hon. and learned Gentleman should ponder deeply on that. In making his point, I am sure that he would
Column 54not offer, as others do, an implied, spurious justification for the actions of loyalist terrorist groupings in the north of Ireland. We are charged to produce legislation that protects the sanctity of human life and the lives of those charged with enforcing the law ; all members of society, whoever they may be ; and those who removed the sanctity of life from others.
Once we draw a distinction--and this distinction is implied--and say that one person's life has more sanctity than another's, we shall be in a quagmire.
If we incorporate the taking of life and the killing of people--because that is what capital punishment means--in our legislation, we shall be adopting the values and methods of the terrorist, gangster and gunman and make them the standard by which we live. That would devalue and diminish our system of justice and make the taking of human life part of our judicial system, which would devalue rather than enhance it. It would also devalue and diminish the society that adopts that standard.
In the United States Supreme Court, Justice Shurgood Marshall said :
"Death is irrevocable. Life imprisonment is not. Death makes rehabilitation impossible. Life imprisonment does not. In recognising the humanity of our fellow human beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute."
He was surely talking about more than just the legislation that determines how criminals are treated. When he spoke of paying ourselves the highest tribute, he was referring also to the effect of capital punishment on society. If we diminish one element of society, we diminish it all. Justice Marshall was eloquently defending the integrity of the legal system, the value of human life, and the highest standards of society--which must derive from both. I believe that Winston Churchill was drawing the same conclusion when he said many years ago that
"the grass grows green again on the battlefield, but never on the scaffold."
He was referring to the corrosive effect of the taking of life being part of our legal system, seeping into every part of society and having a stultifying and negative effect. It is not just a legal or political issue ; it goes deeper. It concerns the sort of society that we want to sustain ourselves.