When murderers were hanged quickly
- 7 August 2014
- From the section Magazine
Fifty years ago the last murderers were hanged in the UK. It brought to an end an era of extraordinarily swift capital punishment.
At 08:00 on Thursday 13 August 1964, two keys turned in the locks of two prison cell doors - one in Manchester, the other in Liverpool. Moments later, two men were dead, hanged for the crime of capital murder.
Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen, two petty criminals who killed a man in a bungled burglary, were the last two people to be executed for murder in the UK.
Justice came swiftly. The trial of 24-year-old Evans and Allen, who was 21, began on 23 June at Manchester Assizes. On 7 July the men were found guilty and sentenced under the 1957 Homicide Act to suffer death "in the manner prescribed by law".
Their appeal was heard just two weeks later - and dismissed the next day. A final appeal for clemency was rejected by the Home Secretary on 11 August. Less than five weeks elapsed between conviction and execution.
The speed of the process, even with two lives at stake, was not unusual. A delay covering three Sundays between sentencing and execution was all the law stipulated.
"The three Sundays rule dated back to the Victorian era," explains Steve Fielding, a criminologist and author of more than 20 books on executions.
"It was felt to allow enough time for any new evidence to come to light, the convict to make his peace with his or her God and also to not prolong the inevitable wait to die."
An appeal might hold things up for slightly longer - but not by much.
"In 1908 the appeal system was introduced, but the vast majority of appeals were rejected. It normally shifted the execution date back by approximately two weeks." says Fielding.
The contrast with the speed of judicial execution today is marked. Only two major industrialised democracies - the US and Japan - still use the death penalty. In both countries the process is notorious for its slowness.
One convicted murderer in Japan, Iwao Hakamada, spent more than 45 years in solitary confinement awaiting death. Japan's policy of not telling the condemned when they would be hanged until the day itself meant he had no way of knowing which day might be his last. But none was. Hakamada was freed on appeal in March this year. His case was extreme, but the average wait on death row in Japan is still seven years. In the US the average is longer still, at around 13 years.
Another contrast is the speed of the process itself. In the UK, an executioner and his assistant were expected to carry out their grisly duties in moments.
"On the stroke of 8am they would enter the condemned cell, strap the prisoner's arms behind his back and lead him to the gallows. The whole procedure often took less than 10 seconds from the hangmen entering the cell to the prisoner dropping to his death," says Fielding.
Compare that with the recent execution in the US of Joseph Wood. An investigation is under way into why it took Wood nearly two hours to die by lethal injection.
The last hangings in the UK appeared to have drawn little national attention.
Sentencing merited only two paragraphs in the Times the following day - on page 15. Rejection of the appeal got the same amount.
"I think the Daily Mirror's coverage of the executions read something like 'Preston Dairymen hanged yesterday...' - two or three lines only, buried away on inner pages," says Fielding.
The victim, John Alan West, a 53-year-old van driver, had been found stabbed and bludgeoned over the head at his home in Seaton in Cumberland. The two murderers blamed one another in an attempt to escape the gallows.
The notoriety of being the last two murderers to hang came only later. In October 1964 Harold Wilson ended 13 years of Conservative rule. Within weeks the Labour backbencher Sydney Silverman had introduced a bill to end capital punishment. By 1965, hanging for murder had been consigned to history.
But even before its abolition, the death penalty was being steadily undermined. The number of executions had declined since the introduction of the Homicide Act - which made the death penalty mandatory for only certain types of murder, at least in part to try to prevent perceived miscarriages of justice.
Only three murderers were hanged in 1963. Evans and Allen were the only ones to die in 1964. Around half of those sentenced to death after 1957 were reprieved and the act was criticised for a lack of clarity - why spare one murderer but execute another? Abolition did not come as a surprise. But the debate about hanging did not end with its abolition. Silverman's bill merely suspended the death penalty for five years. MPs were expected to vote again on hanging.
And so they did, making it permanent in 1969. But that did not end the debate. In every parliament, there was a vote.
It was always a "free vote", meaning MPs were not expected to vote along party lines. That convention was maintained, with each attempt to reintroduce hanging defeated, until the election of Tony Blair's Labour government in 1997.
Within a year parliament had voted in favour of a new Human Rights Act. A backbench amendment signed-up the UK to Protocol Six of the European Convention of Human Rights. Protocol Six outlaws the death penalty in all cases apart from war and imminent threat of war.
In January 1999 the then Home Secretary Jack Straw signed it. The debate on the death penalty was over.
Global death penalty figures, 2013
- At least 778 people executed worldwide - not including those put to death in China
- Almost 80% of all known executions were recorded in just three countries: Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia
- Four countries resumed executions: Indonesia, Kuwait, Nigeria and Vietnam
- Over the past 20 years, the total number of countries carrying out executions dropped from 37 in 1994 to 22 in 2013
Source: Amnesty International
At least it seemed that way.
But David Cameron went into the 2010 election with a manifesto commitment to repeal the 1998 Human Rights Act. A lack of an overall majority prevented him from doing so. But Home Secretary Theresa May reiterated the promise to scrap the act at the party conference last year.
So could MPs in the next Parliament vote again on whether to restore the death penalty?
Barrister Julian Knowles QC, of Matrix Chambers, says that's not going to happen - regardless of whether the Human Rights Act is repealed. "The Human Rights Act doesn't stop Parliament from reintroducing the death penalty. Parliament is supreme and can do anything it wants to do. The main reason it will never do so is that there just isn't the appetite for it anymore."
The international consequences would be severe, explains Knowles. "The UK would be expelled from the Council of Europe, if it didn't leave, and it would have to leave the EU as well, because it's a condition of membership for both organisations that member states don't have the death penalty."
None of the Commons votes before 1998 came close to a majority in favour of restoration - and the majority against increased through the 1980s.
There's also evidence to suggest that public support for hanging is no longer as clear cut as it once was.
A survey conducted by YouGov last year found a majority of those questioned only favoured the death penalty for one type of murder - that of a child for "a sexual or sadistic motive" - and then only with 56% in favour. An e-petition to the government, organised by the political blogger Paul Staines to try to force a debate on hanging, received only 26,351 backers. Petitions need 100,000 to be considered for debate in the House of Commons.
There is evidence both that support for hanging and interest in it as an issue have declined over time, says Anthony Wells, associate director of the political team at YouGov. "In the past it was the example of public and political opinion being out of step. Twenty or thirty years ago it was indisputable that a majority of people supported the death penalty.
"These days you can't really say that a majority of people are still in favour. People have grown up in a country where it's something that is not done. It isn't part of a political debate so doesn't come up as an issue."
Fifty years after the last hangings in the UK, no murderer is likely to ever follow Evans and Allen to the gallows.
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