POST #11: Ethics Of Capital Punishment

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Another speech! I used this for Philosophy Club, and I think it went down alright. If you enjoy it, please like and / or comment! πŸ™‚

So, today I’m going to be talking about the ethics of Capital Punishment. It’s a very debatable topic; but instead of setting out various pros and cons, and arguments for and against, I’m going to tell you a story. It’s the proof for me that Capital Punishment is not the way forward. Perhaps it was the proof for the British Government too, because the story I’m going to tell is the story of the death of the last ever man to be hanged in Britain.

So I’ll start with the night of the murder. Even without the background information so crucial to this case, the murder has much ambiguity in itself. So, on the 2nd November 1952, nineteen year old Derek Bentley and his mate, Chris Craig, who was sixteen, tried to burgle a sweet factory in Croydon. Craig was armed; he had hacked off the barrel of his .455 calibrate gun so he could carry it in his pocket. Craig had also given Bentley a sheath knife and a knuckle duster; you could probably say that the sixteen year old was the mastermind of the criminal operation.

At about 9:15, a nine year old girl spotted the two climbing up a drainpipe to the factory warehouse, and told her Mum who phoned the police.

The police duly arrived, and the two youths hid behind some lift-housing, while taunting them. One of the officers, Detective Fairfax climbed the drainpipe onto the roof and grabbed hold of Bentley, restraining him. The policeman said “Hand over the gun, lad,” to Craig. Bentley then shouted, “Let him have it, Chris,” to Craig. Craig fired at Fairfax, hitting him on the shoulder. He staggered, but managed to keep hold of Bentley, who told him that Craig had more ammunition for the gun. Bentley did not use either of his weapons in his pockets.

Then, further police back up arrived. They wereΒ sent up to the roof, and the first to reach the roof was a policeman called Sidney Miles, who was shot and killed immediately by a bullet in his head. After Chris Craig had exhausted his ammunition and was cornered, he jumped around ten metres onto a greenhouse, fracturing his wrist and spine. He was arrested soon after.

Okay, so that was what happened. Let’s stop at this point and think. How would you sentence Derek Bentley and Chris Craig, aged eighteen and sixteen respectively?

They were both charged with murder. However, Craig was, in the words of the song by Elvis Costello, ‘too young to swing’. And so Derek Bentley, although not actually the literal murderer, would be the sole criminal to hang for the crime. That may or may not seem acceptable to you at this point.

Now, let’s delve a little deeper. Maybe a look into Bentley’s past history may shed an angle of light onto the matter. This came up in the trial, so you, as a jury, would be aware of this when sentencing him to death.

Bentley fell off the back of a lorry when he was very young, leaving him with concussion and very serious head injuries. By the time he was fifteen and a half, his mental age was only ten years old; this progressed to 11 years at the time of the crime. His reading age, by the way, was only four years old. By the age of eighteen, he was virtually illiterate.

In 1950, two years before Sidney Miles’ murder, Bentley was tested positive for epilepsy, and in February 1952, he was judged ‘mentally unstable’ and unfit for national service.

It should be said that Bentley had a history of petty crimes, serving three years in an ‘Approved School’ after being arested for theft when he was fourteen. After he got out of there, he became a dustbin man, but was demoted to street sweeping because of bad conduct, and eventually sacked.

So that’s one controversy. Is a bad kid a bad kid from birth? If you’re ever on Netflix and in the mood to watch a black and white movie, I’d recommend 12 angry men. It deals with exactly the same ideas, set through the eyes of a jury on a fictional case. But to get back to the point. How could a British jury of 12 real men sentence a nineteen year old kid, with the mental age of an eleven year old, to death?

But wait; there’s more ambiguities. Bentley’s words ‘let him have it, Chris’ were the main argument of the prosecution. Taken one way, they could have meant ‘give him the gun, Chris’ and taken the other, they could have meant ‘kill him, Chris.’ It should be noted that neither Bentley or Craig admitted to Bentley having said that.

Secondly, the night in question was basically a haze of gunfire, and it was never fully proved that Craig, rather than Fairfax, killed Sidney Miles. A forensic ballistics expert cast doubt on whether Chris Craig could actually have shot Miles deliberately. The fact that the barrel of the gun had been sawn off made it inaccurate to a range of six feet, and Craig was standing 40 feet away.

And here’s what did not come out at the trial; what was pretty much suppressed by the police. The bullet in the body was never found, but the doctor examining the body estimated that he was shot by something from a .32 to a .38, and from a close range of six to nine feet. Craig was standing roughly 40 feet away from Sidney Miles when he shot him. The police guns were .32 calibre while Craig’s was a .45, and at least one or two bullets were found on the crime scene from the police guns that were never shown to the jury. What happened here can only be speculated about.

In the trial, a recorded confession was used as Bentley’s admission of guilt. This was claimed by the jury to be a ‘verbatim record of dictated monologue’. However sometime after the trial it was shown to be extensively edited and basically made up by the police. An expert linguist showed that certain patterns, like the frequency of the word ‘then’, and the fact that the words ‘I then,’ were used more than ‘then I’, were much more like the idiolect of the Policemen testifying than Derek Bentley.

The judge summed up, and it took just 75 minutes for the 1952 jury to sentence him to death. After the failure of several appeals, Derek Bentley, the nineteen year old youth with the mental age of an eleven year old, was hanged on the 18th January 1953.

He was the last English man to be killed for what he had done, yet, it should be noted that one more woman was hanged before the abolition of Capital Punishment in 1963. You may have heard of the Bentley case; you may have not. To me, it and cases similar, prove that we can never be sure of all the the facts, all the time. In 1992, Bentley was given a posthumous pardon. If he was still alive, they would quite probably have reviewed his case – if serving a life sentence, Bentley would have been 65.

Death is the most irreversible thing on this planet. To conduct it as a state will never be risk free. No matter how many rules, how many regulations and appeals, there is always a chance, fifty or sixty years on, that we may regret that decision.

Is it worth it? In my opinion, no.

Any thoughts?

FURTHER READING:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derek_Bentley_case

http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/elviscostello/lethimdangle.html

http://www.orwell.ru/library/articles/hanging/english/e_hangingΒ – This is an article by George Orwell on an execution he witnessed in Myanmar. The brutality of human nature here got to me on a deep level; but read it for yourself and tell me in the comments what you think!

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2 thoughts on “POST #11: Ethics Of Capital Punishment

  1. Excellent to be reminded of this awful case but I do not think that you need to use it to come out against capital punishment. To me no person or state is entitled to take a life. A murder conviction should mean life imprisonment which should mean for life.

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    1. Yes – I agree absolutely in so much as Capital Punishment is essentially morally wrong. However, I do think the case in itself is applicable to the debate, and highlights another core issue I feel Capital Punishment has – its irreversible nature. Thanks for commenting! πŸ™‚

      Like

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