‘I Am A Killer’ the compelling series praised for its intimate and humane study of Death Row prisoners is now back for a second season which explores themes of repentance and redemption. As an introduction to the new series this article looks at the controversial subject of capital punishment, both presently in the United States and its existence in the UK before the mid 1960’s.
The second series of I Am A Killer allows prisoners serving life sentences the opportunity to tell their story from an individual perspective but contrasted with views of the victims and their families as well as the detectives involved in such disturbing cases. Despite many countries around the world and some US states such as Californian revoking the death penalty, the subject of capital punishment, in a world of terrorism and mass shootings, is still a pertinent topic for debate.
Ever since the death penalty in the UK was abolished in 1969 the topic of capital punishment still fuels diverse opinion and debate, particularly when crimes of a heinous nature occur, such as the sexual assault and killing of a child or the horrors of mass murder and terrorism. At the height of England’s ‘Bloody Code’ during the early 1800’s, where over two hundred crimes could be punishable by death, these included committing theft while being ‘masked’ or ‘blacked’ as part of a disguise. Such liberal employment of execution (usually by hanging), even for poaching, petty theft and stealing goods worth more than 12 pence, contributed to England gaining a notorious reputation for prescribing the death penalty for a vast range of non violent offences.
Somewhat ironically it was the development of the ‘Gibbet’ in Halifax, West Yorkshire during the 17th century, a unique for the time crude machine enabling quick decapitation which inspired infamous Guillotine during the bloody French Revolution. The gibbet in Halifax (a non-working replica was installed in the town’s Gibbet Street) beheaded petty criminals until the mid 17th Century, mainly for theft. Eventually reforms led to the ‘Judgment of Death Act in 1823’, allowing judges to commute the death penalty to a lesser punishment of incarceration or deportation.
The last executions in England by hanging took place in 1964, followed by total suspension of capital punishment for murder in 1965. At the time a gradual realisation that miscarriages of justice could result in innocent defendants being wrongly executed influenced the decision to abandon the practice for life-tariffs instead. But with the advent of DNA technology in the early 90’s and a belief that forensic evidence is today largely incontrovertible, the principle of execution as a fitting punishment for ‘evil’ and heinous acts of violence against citizens, is as passionately discussed today as it was in the 1980’s when the emotive subject was often touted as a voting winner for right wing politicians.
Today capital punishment’s restoration in the UK is currently prohibited by the 13th Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, enshrined in law in 2004. Ideologically such a law can be revoked if the UK is no longer party to the Convention.
Welshman Timothy John Evans, famously portrayed by late actor John Hurt in the 1971 movie ’10 Rillington Place’, was falsely convicted of the murder of his baby girl in 1950 and hanged at HMP Pentonville, London. The twenty-five year old who had learning difficulties was living as a tenant with his pregnant wife, Beryl, at the time of their child’s death. Three years after the execution it was discovered that Evan’s ground floor flat neighbour, John Christie, was in fact a serial killer and necrophile, who had murdered Evan’s wife Beryl and her baby. Due to Evans’ being wrongly convicted and hanged, Christie was free to kill three more women in the early part of 1953 and his own wife Ethel, who he strangled in bed a year earlier. Christie had acted as a ‘respected’ principal witness during Evans’ trial in 1950, encouraging a negative view of the accused by informing the court of Evan’s quarrels with his wife.
Had the police carried out a thorough search of Christie’s garden and wash house they would have found the remains of his earlier female victims. The police, believing Christie to be a truthful and reliable witness (despite having a formidable criminal record) contributed to Evans’ being seen as the prime suspect. During his trial in January 1950 Evans was found guilty of the murder of his own child despite a lack of forensic evidence. A ‘false’ confession made by the accused, possibly under pressure during police interviewing, convinced the jury that Evans was guilty.
Controversy over Evans’ tragic and wrongful hanging after John Christie was found guilty of all murders fuelled debate surrounding the death penalty. Other controversial cases during the 50’s in England contributed to public debate about capital punishment.
28 year-old-club hostess Ruth Ellis, immortalised as the ‘last woman to be hanged in England’ (1955) was executed for shooting her lover, the hard drinking racer David Blakely, in a Hampstead pub. Despite the fact Ellis had suffered a miscarriage three months before the shooting and was the victim of domestic violence the jury took only 20 minutes to find Ellis guilty of pre-meditated murder. A petition for clemency was signed by 50,000 people but Ellis, resigned to her fate, refused to have any part in a campaign to reprieve her.
Bentley was sentenced to death over what is now believed to be a misunderstanding...
In 1953 the hanging of 19 year old Derek Bentley, a youth with a reading age of a four-year-old, learning difficulties and prone to epileptic fits, eventually saw him receive a posthumous pardon in 1993. Bentley and 16 year old accomplice Christopher Craig (who was armed with a revolver) took part in a botched robbery to burgle a warehouse. After police officers arrived, chaos ensued with the legally underage Craig fatally shooting a police constable. Bentley was sentenced to death over what is now believed to be a misunderstanding of his words ‘Let him have it’ to his teenage accomplice. Such cases at the time became a cause celebre and garnered headlines and debate in the country about the rightful use of the death penalty.
Even with the development of DNA forensic technology, mistakes are believed to be still possible, at either the source where evidence is collected and collated or through contamination during laboratory investigations. These actions may be the result of accidental or deliberate falsifications. Biology experts such as American Professor Greg Hampikian, believes that ‘heightened sensitivity’ with DNA testing can create false positives. Such a scenario led to the conviction and imprisonment for four years of American student Amanda Knox, who with her Italian boyfriend, was found guilty of the murder of fellow student Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy in 2007. Knox’s conviction rested on a ‘vanishingly small amount of DNA’ found on a knife at the scene of the crime. Knox was freed in 2011.
Even when the most heinous crimes have taken place which cause public outrage and national repulsion, leading to calls for the death penalty to be reinstated by certain quarters of society, it could be argued that such a move is retrograde and only serves to satisfy a sense of ‘revenge’ with the danger of dehumanising society. Justice, it can be argued, should be applied in a civilised country through a combination of denying freedom to the guilty, while acknowledging the potential of rehabilitation in future years.
The reality is that the law cannot bring back to life someone who has been wrongly executed. Even with an evolved and state-of-the-art DNA process of investigation, the possibility of mistakes at forensic level or through the tampering of evidence still present a risk when determining whether the accused is guilty or innocent. In the case of the Birmingham Six, six Irishmen wrongly imprisoned for life in 1975 for their presumed participation in terrorist attacks on mainland Britain were released after 15 years of incarceration. The unearthing of vital evidence proving the men’s innocence would have been a lost cause had the prisoners been executed years before.
Ted Bundy is one of America’s most notorious serial rapists and killers who confessed to more than 30 homicides that he committed between 1974 and 1978, although the true number of his victims is still unknown. The psychopathic killer endowed with good looks and the kind of gregarious, superficial charm associated with Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) and its sociopathic tendencies, carried out his sadistic attacks on women that involved him feigning injury, disability or pretending to be an authority figure in order for him to lure his victims to their terrifying deaths. His clinical targeting of mostly young girls involved sexual grooming, rape and murder (usually through strangulation) but also in some case bizarre acts of necrophilia. Bundy also decapitated some of his dead victims in order to retain macabre trophies and mementos of his obscene and cowardly handiwork. Originally sentenced to death in 1980 by electrocution, Bundy’s execution dates were subject to constant rescheduling due to his manipulative tactics of holding back details of further murders and then offering confessions. After three death sentences Bundy was finally sent to the electric chair, nine years later on January 24th, 1989. The very moment of his execution was celebrated by hundreds of revellers, including twenty police officers, outside the prison at Florida State Prison. Bundy’s notoriety as a remorseless, sadistic killer beyond redemption is the kind of killer whose destructive and horrific actions against innocent citizens are seen as justifiable reasons for the death penalty to exist.
In some situations a sense of retribution and justice for the victim is reached when a convicted murderer is executed. A feeling of ‘justice being done’ was experienced by Oklahoma resident Carol Anderson whose young daughter was brutally murdered by sadists after she and a friend were kidnapped and then burned alive in the trunk of a vehicle. Anderson attended the execution of one of the killers, stating later in a TV interview that it was ‘an eye for an eye’ and that she wished her daughter had died as quickly and peacefully as her ‘evil’ killer. But extensive studies on the subject have revealed that there is little or substantial evidence indicating that families and loved ones of a murder victim experience long-term relief or emotional catharsis after a victim’s killer has been executed.
It may appear at first glance that keeping an inmate on death row is hugely expensive taking into account their keep (for decades) and lawyers' fees over a considerable amount of time. However, some statisticians in America state that is more costly to execute a prisoner than keep them alive due to legal fees accrued during death row stays, plus the actual cost of the execution itself involving staff, equipment, lethal substances and the employment of lawyers and other official bodies to attend such an event.
An adjunct to this viewpoint is also the certainty that an executed prisoner, found guilty of murder or rape, will not be able to repeat their behaviour and actions to harm other innocent victims. Critics of the death penalty argue that no manner of rightful retribution for horrific crimes guarantees guilt on the part of the accused and where such a notion as infallible proof is still debatable even in today’s world of state-of-the-art technology. Deliberate tampering of evidence, human error and clinical mistakes, as well as DNA mishandling, can frame an innocent person. But how ethical is the idea of execution being a ‘deserved punishment?’ Earlier this year California revoked the death penalty shutting down its execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison. The west coast state’s governor Gavin Newsom, who initiated the move, called the death penalty a failure saying ‘It has provided no public safety benefit or value as a deterrent and has cost billions of taxpayers’ dollars’. Over seven hundred inmates on the state’s death row received a stay of execution, the largest temporary reprieve in the Western Hemisphere. Newsom argued that government endorsed killing of prisoners was morally unjustifiable and that ‘we can do better’ Richard Bevan