29 NOVEMBER 2003, Page 42

Death penalty not practical

From Tom Benyon Sir: Bruce Anderson rightly says that there is a sound moral case for the reintroduction of the death penalty, for you can argue morality any way you want; there are no respectable religious reasons why it should not be reintroduced tomorrow. The reasons against bringing it back are wholly practical. There are famous cases which demonstrate that sentencing errors can occur — the Birmingham Four come to mind. Without the finality of death, in cases where justice is seen to have miscarried, compensation — however inadequate — can always be paid to those subsequently found to be innocent.

Apparently those like David Davis who want it reintroduced harbour the belief that its reintroduction would act as a deterrent and reduce the numbers of murderers walking free to murder yet again. But there is no statistical evidence to indicate that the death penalty reduces the incidence of murder.

Further, there is the law of unintended consequences, in that its reintroduction would have the opposite effect of that intended. Some barristers specialising in defending alleged murderers would warn juries that, if they found the accused guilty, the death penalty might apply. Juries would be reluctant to sentence someone to death as they are well aware that there is always the possibility of a mistake. Therefore they might acquit when there was in fact ample evidence to find the accused guilty, and murderers would walk free.

All this was argued through exhaustively 20 years ago. David Davis might be reminded of the late Lord Hailsham, who wrote then that he was content to live in a country that used the death penalty and he was content to live in a country that did not; what he found intolerable was a country that was unable to make up its mind.

Tom Benyon

Adstock, Buckinghamshire

From Steve Gray Sir: When Bruce Anderson dies will he go to Heaven? Or to Hell? Will he find oblivion or be assimilated into the Universal Cosmos or be reincarnated as a butterfly? The truth is, he doesn't know. (He may believe, but that's a different matter.) The problem with the death penalty is not that murderers are sentenced to death but that they are sentenced to eternity. We know what a life sentence means; we don't know what a death sentence means and we shouldn't impose it.

Steve Gray

Glastonbury, Somerset