Friday, June 19, 2009

Peter Hitchens on Murder (among other things)

Why it's so hard to compare apples with apples on the subject.

Which brings me alongside Mr Hadley's responses to my most recent posting. But before I board his vessel with cutlass aloft, a few reactions are necessary to comments on my Sunday column. Mr Brant asserts that murder has not substantially increased since the abolition of the death penalty. Several points here: Can he please cite his sources? Is he referring to homicide as a whole? If he is using 'murder' as his definition, is he aware that the definition of 'murder' alters according to the legal punishment of that crime? For instance, when we still had a death penalty, but after it was weakened by the Homicide Act of 1957 many killers attempted to avoid the noose by pleading 'diminished responsibility' and so being sentenced for manslaughter. After this weakening, convictions for murder rose slightly, but not spectacularly (from 32 in 1956 to 51 in 1961) . But convictions for 'manslaughter due to diminished responsibility', most of which would probably have been prosecuted and sentenced as murder before 1957, climbed from 11 to 41 between 1957 and 1964. Add them to the murder figures, and you get quite a significant jump.

Once the death penalty ceased to operate at all, this process continued. The distinction moved elsewhere. Rather than trying to avoid being hanged, the accused's lawyers sought to avoid a 'life' sentence. And the prosecution, mindful of prison overcrowding and the high cost of jury trials,has joined in (the affronted relatives of victims sometimes write to me about the resulting injustice). What has tended to happen in subsequent years is that many more cases which would once have been charged and prosecuted as murder were reduced (for speed and cheapness) to charges of manslaughter. So, many cases whose actual nature would have had them classified as murder in, say, 1955, will have been recorded as manslaughter in post 1965 Britain. It is very difficult, given the fluid boundary between the two, to establish numbers.

Then, as the 1948 Royal Commission on the subject rightly pointed out, one must always be careful with direct before and after comparisons. Generally, countries which abolish the death penalty have suspended it or restricted it for a long period before the moment of abolition. (Most of the American states which claim to have the death penalty for political purposes never actually execute anyone, which also tends to confuse the matter, and those which do only execute after immense delays, by which time the murderer has often forgotten what he did, and so that many sentenced murderers actually die of natural causes on Death Row, making 'comparisons' between 'death penalty' and 'non-death-penalty' states virtually meaningless).

In Britain's case, the 1957 Homicide Act, which prevented the execution of gang members who had participated in a homicidal crime, and enshrined the 'diminished responsibility' defence, effectively eviscerated the death penalty although it wasn't formally abolished for another seven years. Britain never executed many murderers in modern times (the highest tally in the post-war period was 18 in 1951) but by the time abolition came, the annual total of hangings rarely rose above two. A serious comparison of pre and post abolition should therefore track the whole period between 1945 and now, and examine in detail many of the homicides nowadays classified as 'manslaughter'.

It should also, as I have rather often pointed out, recognise that trauma surgery has hugely improved since 1964, and that many homicidal assaults, which would undoubtedly have resulted in death 45 years ago, now do not do so. This is not because of the criminals being gentler, or lacking the intent (or callous heedlessness of the consequences of their savagery) which lead to death. A clue as to how many such 'hidden murders' now take place is offered by the growth in attempted murder cases, which rose between 1976 and 1996 from 155 to 634. In the same period instances of 'wounding to endanger life' rose from 5,885 to 10,445. All these figures, and a careful examination of this superficially persuasive but in fact worthless part of the abolitionist case, are to be found in the chapter 'Cruel and Unusual' of my reviled book 'A Brief History of Crime'. Any decent library will find it for you. The issue is also addressed in another chapter 'Out of the Barrel of a Gun', which shows that two post-war suspensions of the death penalty (one in 1948 and the other in 1955-57) caused by Parliamentary debates on abolition, correlate with two substantial but temporary increases in the incidence of armed and violent crime (the form of crime which death penalty supporters argue is deterred by capital punishment). In both cases the figures fell again after the suspension ended, only to increase, and carry on increasing evermore, after final abolition.

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