14 March 1931: On the stark toll capital punishment has inflicted on British society.
In 1931 George Orwell wrote in his essay “A Hanging” that when he “saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide”. A few months earlier, Henry W Nevinson, a war correspondent and a campaigner for universal suffrage, made a sober and unsettling argument against capital punishment in the New Statesman and Nation. Combining evidence from a recent select committee report with the experience of prisoners and officials themselves, Nevinson writes of the pity “due to every human being passing through the difficulties of life like ourselves full of strange capacities for good or evil, and of hopes of possible change to better things”. Capital punishment was eventually abolished for murder in the UK in 1965, though it remained a punishment for treason until 1998.
So the wretched man Rouse has been hanged after all. I will not dwell upon the petition for his reprieve, signed by such a number of men and women. In a merciful people like the British it is always possible to find thousands to sign such a petition where the smallest doubt as to guilt exists. Nor will I enumerate all the causes which seemed to justify a reprieve – such causes as the violent prejudice aroused against the accused by the publication of the details of his private life; the unknown identity of the dead man; the difficulty of imagining that the motive attributed to Rouse occurred to him as he drove along; or the question raised by the judge himself, whether there was evidence enough before the jury to hang the man, even though be might be guilty. The case is decided. There is now an end of hope. It is unlikely that anything more will be heard of it to all eternity, unless, perhaps, the identity of the supposed victim is established.
That is one of the terrible defects in the law of capital punishment. The execution is irretrievable. Nothing can undo death. No matter what evidence may come to light, atonement for a legal error is impossible. In some cases the verdict has been definitely proved false after the sentence of death has been passed. The case of Oscar Slater is recent and notorious, for he had been reprieved after sentence, and was subsequently proved entirely innocent. But when a man or woman has been actually hanged, it is seldom that others take the trouble to investigate the case again just for the sake of clearing a reputation. Few have the persistence or the instinct for justice of Conan Doyle, least of all when the death of the prisoner has ended interest in his case. Undoubtedly innocent people have been hanged even in recent times, and their doom was irrevocable. As Lord Buckmaster, an ex-Lord Chancellor, said in his evidence before the Select Committee on Capital Punishment, the Report of which was …read more
Source:: New Statesman
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