Death Penalty

Part of New clause 1 – in the House of Commons at 7:15 pm on 1st April 1987.

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Photo of Mr Alex Carlile Mr Alex Carlile , Montgomery 7:15 pm, 1st April 1987

The hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) spoke with his usual passionate eloquence which we respect and enjoy, but he fell into the error of misrepresentation when he dealt with terrorists. He suggested that my right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins) had spoken about the psychosis of death. He did not; he talked about the psychosis of terrorism and answered the point that the hon. and learned Gentleman kept repeating in interventions. Terrorists are psychotic, which means that some do not care whether or not they face death and, possibly even worse, others want to face death and welcome the martyrdom of it.

Tonight we are debating how best to protect the public from murder, but it is a much more complex question than that. We are debating how best to protect the public from murder while maintaining a fair system of trial, sentencing and review by appeal. Let us not forget that since the abolition of capital punishment our system of appeal has developed by the introduction of the Home Secretary reference.

It would be a sick mockery if mistakes such as those which were listed by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) could be corrected only posthumously. It would not help the victim or his surviving family. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the case of Geoffrey Mycock who was convicted in 1969 and released in 1984. I met him on two occasions before his case was reviewed by the Court of Appeal and on the day on which his appeal was allowed in the Court of Appeal.

Mr. Mycock had been convicted almost entirely on the basis of forensic evidence, consisting of the identification of fibres. After many years, it became clear that the forensic scientist who had given that evidence had been an unreliable witness on many occasions, particularly at that trial. There was a long campaign, which included work by Members of Parliament, to have that case and others reviewed.

When I visited Mr. Mycock for the first time, he was in Nottingham prison and had been in gaol for 15½ years, but he was very much alive. Indeed, he was alive with a lively determination which I judged could have been based only on the truth. When he reached the Court of Appeal on review after reference by the Home Secretary, the Crown did not even seek to argue that his conviction had been correct. As a result, he was released. He had lost 16 years of his life but he did not lose his life itself.

After a difficult period of adjustment, Mr. Mycock is leading a normal, private life in society. That error has been corrected in the way in which it should have been—by releasing him to make the best of what is left of his life. I feel a revulsion that the state should even countenance that he could have been killed and not have the opportunity to live the rest of his life at peace. His example is only one of many similar cases.

Those who support the new clause accept that they are prepared to face, on behalf of the state, the fact that such terrible mistakes could be committed. I am not, and that is one of the main reasons why I shall be voting against the new clause.

Secondly, I should like to turn to some of the practical difficulties which would arise if the new clause were passed. If a person kills and at the time of so doing intends to kill or cause serious injury, he is guilty of murder. That is the test of murder which is applied in our courts. It is surely in the public interest that all those who commit murder should be convicted of it. Once they have been convicted of murder, the public can be protected by a proper criminal justice policy and by proper examination of the murderers and their cases while they are in prison. The test of murder should be applied consistently; it is fairly simple; it can be and is applied consistently. What is murder in Newcastle is murder in Bodmin and anywhere else that one may care to mention in the country under the present rules.

Those who practised the law during the era of capital murder, although it could be defined quite easily and clearly, tell me that it was extremely difficult to obtain a verdict of guilty. It happened only in the plainest of cases, yet even then we know from the catalogue given by the, right hon. Member for Gorton that mistakes were made, even in what were thought to be the plainest of cases.

The new clause would lead to wrongful acquittals of murder, perverse acquittals of murder and acquittals of murder which would be the result of the lottery of the random selection of a jury.

The new clause is defective not only because of what it would cause but because of its drafting. Let us look at some of the words in the new clause: in circumstances which a reasonable person would consider to be evil". Does that include what happens before the killing, at the time of the killing or after the killing? Supposing a crime of passion is committed and in blind panic, as has happened, the murderer cuts up the body and does vile and ghastly things with it. As the clause is drafted, that person will be liable to execution for murder as a result of the things that he did after a dead body lay before him.