Talk of the Death penalty in the UK seems like a remnant of the distant past, long consigned to history. The last sentence to be carried out was in 1964, and the highly controversial case of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in the UK in (1955) still provokes a strong reaction to this day. It’s a topic that will always divide opinion.
More recently, disputed cases, like that of Sam Hallam, who was 18 when convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment had his conviction spectacularly quashed last month following a Criminal Cases Review Commission; he had served seven years. His case served as a keen reminder of how precarious the justice system can be, and that miscarriages of justice can, and do, still happen in the UK. But perhaps even more unsettling is the fact that his conviction would have at one time carried a death sentence in this country; it still does for many juvenile offenders elsewhere in the world.
Just yesterday the less recognised case of Liam Holden made the headlines. Holden, the last person in the UK to be handed a death sentence, had his sentence overturned 40 years after he was originally convicted of the murder of a soldier in Northern Ireland in 1973, he was just 19 at the time and had served 17 years of a commuted sentence. The death penalty for murder was eventually abolished in Northern Ireland in 1973, four years after the rest of the UK.
Reading about his case was shocking in terms of how relatively recent that seems, but also the time it has taken to have his name cleared and the length of the judicial process. It also emerged that he was ‘water boarded’ whilst held in military custody and the confession which convicted him was extracted by torture. He recounts in harrowing detail his experience of being subjected to this form of torture which has become notorious and something we think of as a recent phenomenon associated with the CIA and Guantanamo Bay, rather than Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Amnesty has called on the UK authorities to fully investigate the torture allegations and bring those responsible to justice.
Fortunately Liam Holden has now cleared his name, many others are not so lucky and it seems more of a rare occurrence that convictions such as these are overturned, often in exceptional circumstance. There are, of course, many instances where people have paid with their lives where their convictions and the evidence against them has appeared to be more than uncertain; Troy Davis is an poignant example. There are also longer term cases, and those who are still fighting wrongful convictions. Japan’s Hakamada Iwao, believed to be the world's longest serving death row inmate, was convicted after an unfair trial in 1968 and has spent over four decades in detention awaiting execution for a crime he claims he did not commit. Recent DNA evidence (in April) has showed no match between Hakamada’s DNA and samples taken from clothing he is alleged by the prosecution to have worn at the time of the crime.
While landmark rulings like Liam Holden’s are hugely significant and welcome, they are also a reminder of why the death penalty is rightly history in the UK and should be abolished everywhere once and for all. It's not only a cruel and barbaric form of punishment in itself, with devastating effect on individuals and their families, but the psychological anguish and lasting effects on those subjected to long and uncertain prison terms with such a fate hanging over them can only be imagined.
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