Forty years ago today, the House of Lords voted for the permanent abolition of the death penalty in Great Britain, following a vote by the lower house two days earlier. The decision marked a victory for campaigners such as Ludovic Kennedy, Sydney Silverman and Harold Evans, who had been appalled by the judicial killings of a series of innocent men, most famously Timothy Evans.
Evans was an illiterate bakery van driver who as hanged in 1950 for the murder of his baby daughter. Harry Evans has recently recounted in his book My Paper Chase the appalling story of how his namesake was wrongly convicted and executed for a crime he did not commit. As Evans says, the sequel to Timothy's killing was as awful as the crime itself. Timothy Evans' landlord John Christie was convicted and hanged three years after Evans after confessing to killing Evans' wife and other women in the same house - the notorious 10 Rillington Place. Still the authorities refused to admit any doubts about Evans' judicial killing. The British establishment and judiciary refused to accept that it could have hanged an innocent man, even as the compelling evidence to the contrary was piling up. Yet the logic of their view was that there had to be two men independently strangling in the same way, in the same small house, with the same fingerprints - a chance of four billion to one.
The campaigners finally won a degree of justice for Timothy Evans with a free pardon in 1966. By then, the death penalty had been suspended in Great Britain. Three years later came the end for good. (Note: Northern Ireland didn't follow suit until the 1970s, and technically the whole of the UK retained capital punishment until 1998 for a small number of crimes such as treason. But there was no prospect of those powers ever being used.)
There are still those who call for the return of the death penalty. But for any right-minded person, the idea of the state killing anyone in cold blood is appalling. How can you condemn murder but then demand the right to kill someone yourself? And more seriously, if murder is a dreadful crime, how more chilling is the idea of the state killing innocent people? As the Evans case showed, the very finality of capital punishment made the state utterly refuse to contemplate that it might have made a deadly mistake. One of those stone-walling home secretaries described the idea as a fantasy.
There have been a string of miscarriages of justice since 1969, including the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four. The victims spent years in prison for crimes they did not commit. But at least they weren't killed by the state, thanks to the efforts of Kennedy, Evans and Silverman.