Magazine article The Spectator


Magazine article The Spectator


Article excerpt

The quality of mercy

From Mr Peter Weitzman, QC

Sir: Neil Clark ('Bring back the rope' 9 June) thinks that 'it is just that convicted murderers should pay with their lives; and second, that the death penalty deters'. Maybe it does deter; but the proposition that 'convicted murderers should pay with their lives' ignores the fact that the crime of murder covers a whole range of circumstances. Murder, to put it broadly, is the doing of an act which causes death with the intention of killing or causing serious bodily harm to the victim; and so includes, at one end of the spectrum, a deliberate gangland massacre, and at the other the reasoned killing of a loved relation who is suffering from unbearable pain in the course of a terminal illness (although the latter case is often reduced to manslaughter by the attribution to the accused of an 'abnormality of mind').

There has been an attempt to distinguish murders which should attract the death penalty from those that should not. The result was absurd. In a short-lived Act in the 1950s, murder 'in furtherance of theft' was categorised as a capital offence. I appeared as junior counsel in a case in which the four accused, who had kicked another boy to death, based their defence on the contention that they had carried out the assault for fun and only as an afterthought had gone through the victim's pockets.

One solution might seem to be to give the judge on whom the task of sentencing falls the discretion to impose the death penalty in appropriate cases. I think it is obvious that this is not a practicable course. Has Mr Clark any alternative suggestion? Would he leave it to the politicians, as was once the position, to exercise the prerogative of mercy?

Peter Weitzman

London W11

From Dr Mike Diboll

Sir: My objection to the death penalty is based firmly on libertarian principles: having a public employee place a noose around one's neck is the ultimate intrusion of the state into an individual's life. It is hardly surprising, therefore, to find a socialist and statist arguing for that penalty's restoration. Neither juries nor judges are infallible. Nor is DNA evidence. In cases of miscarriage of justice, under the present system a wronged man might still be released and compensated for his false imprisonment. This is not a perfect way of going about things, admittedly; however, I am assuming that Neil Clark has no recipe by which the dead can be brought back to life.

The United States, for all its many and great strengths, is by far the most violent society in the democratic world, and the 38 states that execute are markedly more violent societies than the 12 that do not. This is because the catharsis that accompanies each state killing is entirely emotional in its character, and as a deterrent it is as transient as yesterday's headlines; the long-term effect of judicial execution in America is simply to further embed violence in that nation's psyche.

Like Mr Clark, I too cannot imagine New Labour bringing back hanging; yet Mr Clark's advocacy of Singapore as a safe and happy society must surely be music to the ears of New Labour's authoritarians and nanny-statists with their new, thumping great majority in what is gradually beginning to resemble a one-party state, a Singapore to the EU's Malaysia.

Mike Diboll

London SE16

Computer error

From Mr Jo Johnson

Sir: Fair enough if your magazine can't stand the euro. But deliberately to use computers that can't read euro signs - see the erroneous substitution of francs for euros throughout my article last week on the new French TGV ('Last tango in Paris') - is taking things too far.

So, just to be clear: when Parisians swan down to Marseilles in three hours, their tickets will cost 62 euros (L39), as I wrote, not 62 francs (L39), as, extraordinarily, it managed to appear in print. Equally, the French railway system's debts and losses were all expressed in euros when they left my computer, not the francs that made them appear much less horrendous than they actually are. …

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