Fatal flaw in the argument for the death penalty

The Guardian, July 5 1983
Published as Mrs Thatcher's government attempted to restore the death penalty

Graham Blowman has served a life sentence for murdering a Pakistani in a street fight in 1968: “I was very drunk, and this argument just started. There were four of them. I was facing one, and the other three went round behind me. I just wanted to deal with the one and then stop the others. I wasn’t thinking of the consequences.

“I used a knife, just stabbed him once, and it went through his heart. I didn’t mean to kill him. I meant to do him harm and I’d threatened to kill him, but I never thought he would die. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to kill a person. The other three just scattered.

“But I wasn’t thinking of the consequences. If somebody had come up to me there on the pavement – before I stabbed him – and said ‘Graham, you’ll hang if you do that’, it wouldn’t have made any difference. I just wanted to stop the bloke.”

If Blowman is right, the pro-hanging lobby is wrong. Apart from the few who are prepared to argue that vindictive punishment is morally right, most supporters of capital punishment argue that it must he restored to deter people like Blowman, who kill with apparent callousness.

But their argument makes sense only if killers do exactly what Blowman says he did not do – think of the consequences. Only then can the prospect of the gallows as opposed to a prison sentence make a difference to their actions.

The argument is directly challenged not just by the accounts of the killers and the thieves who are equipped to kill but also by a wealth of research which, according to the latest United Nations report “shows no correlation between the existence of capital punishment and lower rates of capital crime.”

The statistics show that the overwhelming majority of killers commit their offences in a moment of aberration – perfectly ordinary people who snap under some pressure and, without considering the consequences, lash out.

The Home Office’s own research supports the point. A study by the Home Office Research Unit looked at murders for the 14 years after the abolition of the death penalty in 1967. “The pattern was very similar to that found in previous years,” it concluded. “Most of the victims were closely associated with the suspects and were killed for personal or emotional reasons, especially rage, quarrels and jealousy.”

The study found that 75 per cent of murder victims already knew their killers. The figure is roughly the same both before and after the abolition of the death penalty. These ‘aberration’ killers are usually dumbfounded at their own behaviour. Some 20 per cent kill themselves afterwards.

Blowman became an introvert. “It was because the killing was so easy, and I was afraid I might do it again. In the first 12 months in prison I hardly spoke to anybody. It’s very easy to get into trouble in prison, and I didn’t want to run the risk. I thought if I got into another argument, it might happen again, I might kill someone else and then they’d think I was a psychopath.”

If the deterrence argument fails against this type of killer, it fails doubly against the smaller group of people who kill because they are mentally sick. Being sick, they are even less likely to make a rational calculation of the consequences of killing. If they can show that they truly are sick they will anyway not be punishable with death.

Many of the hanging motions which are being drafted for the House of Commons debate single out professional criminals, particularly armed robbers as precisely the sort of cool, calculating offenders who could be deterred. Even there, the case fails in the face of the statistics and the accounts of the criminals themselves.

The abolition of the death penalty in Britain has made no difference to the rate at which policemen are killed on duty. Leaving aside Northern Ireland, it has stayed almost constantly between zero and two each year, hitting a brief peak of four in 1966, when three officers were killed in one incident.

The number of armed robberies has escalated dramatically, more than trebling from 574 to 1,893 between 1971 and 1981, but the number of people shot dead in that period has actually fallen from 36 to 32.

A Londoner who has been involved in armed robberies for more than 20 years, explained why: “Any sensible robber just wants to be in and out as quickly as possible. He doesn’t want to injure anyone. There’s no fun in hurting people.

“Robbers don’t carry guns with the intention of shooting people. First off, they’re there to frighten people. You might fire one in the air just to create the noise. It’s to stop people having a go. Well, sometimes people have a go. It can happen at any stage. You still don’t want to kill them.

“People don’t understand that that’s why shotguns are cut down – to make them less lethal. It sprays the shot over a wider area. The longer the barrel, the more the shot stays together, so the more lethal it is. You cut them down, they’re less dangerous.”

This man shot a security guard during a robbery. “He was pursuing us, so I turned round and fired. It was a sawn-off and some of the pellets caught him in the hand. That stopped him. That’s all it was supposed to do. Mind you, I was very worried about it. I got home and I didn’t know what had happened to him. You’re on tenterhooks until you hear the news.”

The hanging lobby would say that if murder attracted a death sentence, a robber in that position would not take the risk of firing. The robber disputes that: “It wouldn’t make any difference. It’s survival – survival and panic. That’s why guns are fired in most cases. A split second thing.

“If you’re standing there, and three or four policemen are coming towards you and you’re looking at 20 or 30 years in prison, you’ve got to do something, so you fire. You try and hit their legs, aim to maim. So, suppose that means you get hanged instead of doing 30 years, what’s the difference? Its the same as the death sentence – 30 years in prison.”

He admitted there is a problem with criminals who are trigger-happy. “Some of the young ones won’t go on a job unless they’re full of pills. They don’t know what they’re doing. They’re a danger to everyone, but they’re out of control so what difference is the death penalty going to make to them?”