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Short Discourse on the Psychology of Capital Punishement

  • Category(s): Death Penalty Essays
  • Created on : 02 July 2013
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  • Author: Richard Michael Lamb


Against a background of no capital punishment since the 1960’s, Richard M. Lamb argues that the return of capital punishment will reintroduce pure judicial responsibility, empowering trial judges.


Britain has had no Capital Punishment since Hanratty case of early 1960’s. Until then Capital Punishment may have been imposed judicially subject to the Jury’s plea for mercy and the Home Secretary’s right to reprieve. Where Capital Punishment was imposed it was carried out properly within days at the Pentonville Prison gallows (Pierrepoint the Hangman).


My parents would refer to a hanging Judge e.g. (Jeffreys) who condemned to death those who supported the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion against his uncle James II (late 17th Century, battle of Sedgemoor, Somerset). My parents also would condemn a “Colonel Blimp” as “a hang ’em and flog em” politician e.g. Sir Richard Glynn (Con) who defeated my father (Lib) in Dorset North 1964 and 1966 general elections: An easy term of denigration that missed the point of Capital Punishment to achieve a just outcome. I, like my parents, opposed Capital Punishment until very recently.


Since Capital Punishment has been side lined and removed from the Judges’ powers of sentencing, our criminal and civil justice system has foundered. Essentially the death penalty concentrates minds – there can be no going back – it is final and irreversible. That psychology invests justice with majesty and the proper panoply of the history of criminal justice and the legal process going back to the Roman Empire at the time of Christ, who was Himself sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate, Roman Governor of Palestine. I argue when you take away the death penalty, you fatally weaken the whole process of justice. Everyone, be he, Judge, Lawyer, Juryman, Journalist, Priest or member of the public looks up to the No. 1 Court at the Central Criminal Court for that leadership and example which only a puisne Judge can give in a Capital Trial. The public probably support hanging despite the vociferous and patronising Human Rights lobby. Why do the public support it? Because those who take life should lose their own life. There is a simple and concise logic in that deduction, it needs no further elaboration. (A time honoured phrase)


To bring back hanging would require enormous political will and similar driven cooperation by the High Court Judiciary. It could be done by radical government of the right supported by a united Judiciary and of course with the public’s backing (a plebiscite) – that force of will would be unstoppable and would unite the Country for a long time to come.


My principal argument for the ultimate penalty is that it will reintroduce in to our Administration of Justice the concept of pure Judicial Responsibility. What the Judge says goes subject as always to the Jury’s verdict (I don’t support trial by jury) in a murder case, conspiring to murder, incitement to kill, soliciting murder or aiding and abetting murder. If the Trial Judge knows he has the ultimate sentence at his disposal he is empowered, whether he be the sentencing Judge or a lesser Judge (from a distance). He is strengthened by the death penalty to conduct the Trial with the greatest fairness knowing the consequence for the accused if convicted. He also knows the case must be given a sharp and quick judgement and his summing up should be short and to the point as they say - Don’t prolong the agony. The Judge in these circumstances will be no timeserver or slave to convention. He will do Justice on account of the gravity of the penalty even if it means he has to go out on a limb - a man’s or woman’s life is at stake. The Judge’s career is seen as less important than the Judicial process. Over the years Judges have filled ‘a Judges graveyard’ with their unpopular deeds and behaviour Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys (17th Century) and Judge Edward Clarke, Old Bailey, London (1960’s – 70’s) and Lord Chief Justice Widgery (1970’s), Lord Chief Judge Goddard (1950’s) – All these Judges were very Senior Judges yet they were fundamentally criticised for their outspokenness and their refusal to court the favour of their fellow Judges and the press. (See also Mr Justice Melford Stephenson who tried the Krays.)

Even Lord Denning, Master of the Rolls (1950’s – 1970’s) provoked bitter judicial denigration before and following his retirement in early 1980’s. He, of all Judges, would do justice in his cases, whatever the cost to precedent and himself. Sir Michael Havers QC son of Mr Justice Cecil Havers who sentenced Ruth Ellis to death (late 1950’s - Capital murder by revolver) was a very good example of speedy and efficient advocacy built upon the need for finality, which his father showed in Ruth Ellis case inter alia. Sir Michael had his father’s gravity and timing – he knew when to strike during his cross examination, I saw him in action at Central Criminal Court. Sir Michael prosecuted Maguire Seven (explosions case) and Guildford Four (murder case) early 1970’s. He was briefed by the Labour Attorney General (Wilson Government) as Sir Michael was the most audacious, brave, successful criminal Advocate at that time. He would not be intimidated by anyone. His father who tried Capital Cases had taught him this and Sir Michael taught R.M.Lamb as well by example (RML in Sir Michael’s Chambers). Sir Michael himself came under heavy fire for his conduct in the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven cases during 1980’s. Essentially that criticism, as with the blame heaped on other Judges I have mentioned (including Mr Justice Bridge who tried Birmingham Six) is a sign they were doing their duty and standing up for what was right.

Let there be right (Winslow Boy – Petition of Right). You have to be extreme to stand up for what is right. Capital Punishment by its very nature enhances the stream of right in the Judges’ minds. (No one plays around with the death penalty).