Wednesday, July 10, 2013
For the worst killers, Life should mean life
I can recall a time when the abolition of capital punishment was much more recent in Britain and before the great majority of the "political class" in this country had accepted that it was permanent.
Back then a Conservative with parliamentary ambitions who came out against the death penalty was taking a great risk with his or her chances of becoming an MP. Although there were plenty of brave people with the courage of their convictions who did just that.
But almost every politician of whatever party who supported the abolition of capital punishment or opposed its' return at the time that was seen as a serious possibility defended this policy to the public - a majority of whom have always supported the death penalty - by making the following three promises.
First that there must be very serious punishment for those who deprived others of their lives, and second that these killers who were clearly a serious danger to the public should be locked away to protect the public for as long as they remained so. And third, those convicted of the worst acts of murder should be sentenced to life imprisonment and "Life should mean life."
This was not a case of politicians trying to over-ride Britain's own judiciary. "Whole life tariffs" have only ever been imposed in the most serious and atrocious cases, and generally with the trial judge, who has had to listen in more detail to the harm done by these killers than most of the politicians and journalists who commented on their cases making clear that he or she thought it fair and proportionate.
One of the shorter and more memorable examples was the comment by the trial judge in the case of Rose West, Mr Justice Mantell, who on sentencing her to life imprisonment added
"If attention is paid to what I think, you will never be released."
The European Court of Human Rights - which, by the way, is nothing to do with the European Union - has supported a case brought against Britain by three convicted murderers who argued that under human rights laws their cases should be reviewed. The court ruled that even the worst murderers should be entitled to apply for a review of their cases.
This is a long way short of saying that they should be released, but has still caused understandable upset.
I think that Jonathan Freedland in, of all places, the Guardian, got it right here when he argued against upsetting the tacit bargain which the political establishment had made with the majority: that instead of killing monsters like Ian Brady, society would put them and keep them behind bars for life.