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Should Child Killers Face The Death Penalty?

by Gareth Dimelow
18 August 2012 33 Comments

In the aftermath of the murder of Tia Sharp Facebook has been burning with bloodthirsty calls for the death penalty to be reinstated. Should we really execute child killers?


Not too long ago, I happened to catch an old episode of L.A. Law. Like most installments of the long-running show, this particular edition had plucked a hot topic from the headlines and fashioned a compelling legal drama around it. Now, I feel that I know my own beliefs pretty well, and can usually determine pretty quickly how I feel about a certain subject. But this one threw me completely.

One of the lawyers was representing a cabal of doctors attempting to get a court order to terminate a woman’s life. The woman in question was in the very late stages of terminal cancer, with just weeks to live. She was also in the late stages of a pregnancy. The doctors were concerned that, if she attempted carried the baby to term, its chances of survival would be next-to-none, and she would likely die in childbirth, if not before. They knew that the only positive outcome of this horrifying scenario, would be to deliver the baby prematurely by cesarean section; an operation that would kill the mother. The woman was arguing that she could hold on long enough to deliver the child. And as an expectant mother, it was her right to see the baby she had carried inside her.

What was so interesting about this ethical conundrum, is how effectively it challenged my pre-existing opinions. I’m a staunch advocate of abortion rights for women, and just as strongly opposed to the death penalty. And yet, this scenario found me rooting for the doctors to get their court order – siding with the rights of the unborn child over the life of its mother. Although this was just a random hour of glossy televised drama, the questions it posed stayed with me, long after the end credits rolled. In this hypothetical scenario, I felt that the baby’s rights trumped those of the mother, since her death was both imminent and inevitable. In fact, the only outcome yet to be determined was whether or not the baby would survive. And to be clear, at eight-months, the infant was developed enough to be successfully delivered.

This wasn’t an easy show to watch. But I was thankful to have had the opportunity to challenge my own belief systems, since in the end, it left me more resolute in my opinions than ever. I was reminded that, sometimes, black and white can just leave you with a shitload of grey.

That’s the thing with matters of life and death; there are no easy answers. Knee-jerk reactions simply don’t cut it when human lives are on the line. Taking another person’s life is a lot more complicated than putting a quarter intone of Futurama’s Suicide Booths. Instead, we have to weigh the consequences of our actions, as well as those of the people around us. And consider what our beliefs say about us a society.

That’s the thing with matters of life and death; there are no easy answers. Knee-jerk reactions simply don’t cut it when human lives are on the line

This week, I was alarmed to see a number of postings on my facebook timeline, arguing for the reinstatement of the death penalty in light of the Tia Sharp case. If you’ve always chanted ‘bring back hanging’ whenever you’ve seen a picture of Ian Huntley or Myra Hindley, chances are, your voice has only grown louder this week. On the other hand, if you’re like me, you may well be wondering where to start with all the friends in your social circle who eagerly ‘liked’ and ‘shared’ the picture of Stuart Hazell, alongside a call for his death.

Interestingly, many of the people who used social media to advocate for a return of the death penalty, were the same ones that shared Jason Manford’s eloquent and comprehensive take-down of the trolls who attacked a grieving Gary Barlow for his part in the Closing Ceremony. The most powerful part of Manford’s essay refers to the moral relativism relating to the way we perceive death and age. He referred to one particular comment, which suggested that losing a newborn was somehow less painful than losing a child that had lived for a few years. But this argument runs both ways – child murder may be more emotive than the murder of an adult, but it’s no greater or lesser a crime. It’s still murder. So the argument that paedophiles and child killers deserve the death penalty, while others don’t, is both offensive and illogical.

And what of the death penalty itself? Those in favour of it usually argue that there is no greater crime than to take a human life. So it’s a fitting punishment in accordance with the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ model of Biblical morality. Of course, in doing so, they’re willing to perpetuate the exact same sin. “Oh but they deserve it,” is the predictably weak defence that usually follows, when this is pointed out. Try telling that to the family of Marvin Wilson, who was executed in the state of Texas last week, for his part in the murder of a drug informant. With an IQ of just 61, Wilson didn’t know how to use a phone book or a ladder, and there were serious doubts about the reliability of eyewitness testimony involved in his prosecution. Did he deserve twenty years of a custodial sentence, followed by death by lethal injection? It’s a rhetorical question, but I’m sure you can guess my answer.

“Well, you have to be absolutely certain,” say the apologists for capital punishment. So consider the fact that, in the last 42 years, 140 convicted death row inmates in the U.S. alone have been exonerated. They were the lucky ones. Another 39 executions are believed to have been carried out “in the face of evidence of innocence or serious doubt about guilt.” So much for ‘certainty’.

The death of a child must be incomprehensibly difficult for any family to endure. The rest of us, however, have a choice as to how we react. We can weigh in with our own furious indignation, baying for blood and articulating our disgust at something that is none of our business. Or we can choose to focus on the things that do concern us. Protecting and supporting the people around us; our friends, families and communities. In the long run, it’s a far more positive response than some kind of crowd-sourced bloodlust.
In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to confuse justice with revenge. In reality, the two couldn’t be more different. To quote Francis Bacon, “In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior.”

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image descriptionCOMMENTS

Jason 9:49 am, 18-Aug-2012

I've had the same argument before, but been on the other side of it. Some people just deserve to die and there do circumstances where there is absolutely no question of innocence. Perpetrators of massacres are a good example. Anders Brevik. A psycopathic orchestrator of mass death who has no regret and who is incapable of being reformed. We live in a world of constrained resources. Why spend millions on pointless judicial processes and endless incarceration where that money could be spent on improved rehabilitation for other criminals who do have hope for a second chance, childens education, infrastructure. Just shoot the guy and be done with it.

Nigel 10:02 am, 18-Aug-2012

Emotive picture. Has Hazell been tried and convicted yet? Do we, as a baying mob, know all the facts yet? Just asking.

Dan The Man 10:44 am, 18-Aug-2012

Kill the paediatricians.... er.

Nick 11:39 am, 18-Aug-2012

We can debate all day about whether or not a child murderer deserves to die, and there are people out there who are so strong in their beliefs, one way or the other, that will not be swayed either way. But what if we killed, for instance, a convicted child rapist who was found 100% guilty by DNA testing, confession and other concrete evidence? It could be reported on the news, given blanket coverage, so that the message gets out to other potential child killers. If you do this, and get caught, we WILL HANG YOU. What if that would save even one child from a prolonged, tortuous death? Would you pull the switch if it was a deterrent? I would, I think [how can you know for sure?]

Nick 12:30 pm, 18-Aug-2012

And another thing. In this world we live in, where we routinely kill each other in bars on saturday nights and by drink driving and in wars over oil, why has nobody waterboarded Ian Brady so that Winnie Johnson could have some closure before she died? Seems to me that the victims all too often are second class citizens in this world.

Sam P 1:24 pm, 18-Aug-2012

@Nick, Capital Punishment is not a proven deterrent... at all. Excellent piece Gareth!

Markxist 2:56 pm, 18-Aug-2012

Every so often following another news story in which a monster makes the headlines the little Daily Mail reader within me that I'd rather believe didn't exist jumps out, pops up on my shoulder and mutters 'they should bring back hanging' into my ear. It's certainly very hard to come up with a reason as to why evil murderers (and not just child killers) like Brady, Huntley, Sutcliffe and West are still breathing. But then I consider the facts - even Pierrepoint believed that his whole career as a hangman was wasted; that capital punishment never once deterred anyone from committing murder. And that if we were to have hung Hindley and Brady in the 60s Brady would never had admitted in the 80s to his role in the murders of Keith Bennett and Pauline Reade and the latter's body would never had been found. It's just a tragedy that today, as the news of Winnie Johnson's death has broke, she never got to bury her son.

Allmodcons1965 3:11 pm, 18-Aug-2012

Marxist,Apparently pierrepoints biographer said he only said this as a way of flogging more books,and I think if you have 100% evidence you should string the fuckers up until there eyes pop out of there heads...

Markxist 3:55 pm, 18-Aug-2012

Allmodcons1965, well that maybe so but the stats alone show capital punishment was never a deterrent. It is only a medium of revenge, an eye for an eye. Like I say if you'd have killed Brady and Hindley in the 60s Reade would never have been found, there would have been no official confession from them and families would still be in the dark. Don't get me wrong I'd be far happier if Sutcliffe and many more went to the noose a long time ago but you can't always rationalise that an execution no matter how conclusively guilty would be correct. Gareth, incidentally and slightly O/T I read Jason Manford's essay on trolls and whilst I wholeheartedly agree with where he is coming from I found him less than eloquent, in claiming the moral highground with his 'how do you know what their homelife is like?' statement he went and posited his own more friendly and sympathetic suggestion of their homelife with the same level of ignorance regarding it. For me it made for a hollow argument however much I wished otherwise. Plus Manford should really steer clear of computers anyway ...

Tristan BJ 6:12 pm, 18-Aug-2012

Nick, re deterrent. Do you think child killers are logical, concerned citizens who would respond to the threat of capital punishment? Evidence points against it. Capital punishment doesn't have a deterrent effect on 'normal' murderers let alone those who we would presume are mentally wired up wrongly. And on that note I am always angry that we make so little effort to figure out how and why these killers are 'made'. Some would say they are born that way, others that it is a set of circumstances that have created the dysfunction. Certainly in the cases of Nielsen et al they come from horrible circumstances, but not enough proper research has been done, and frankly, as a teacher in unconventional environments and to young men on the margins of society I can say they are being very poorly served with regard to sexual and social development. We seem content to froth indignantly every so often rather than trying to unpick the thorny knot of (overwhelmingly) male sexual anger and dysfunction.

Doesn't matter 9:22 pm, 18-Aug-2012

Markist, the Pedant in me will point out that West commited suicide whilst on remand. I can't be arsed looking it up but I'm sure you're no stranger to a Google search so fire on. Whilst I'm here I'd agree with the majority of views but there's noway the clock will be turned back to those days so Id suggest you get used to the idea od incarsination instead.

andy 9:36 pm, 18-Aug-2012

No, we are more civilized than that.

Markxist 10:46 pm, 18-Aug-2012

Doesn't matter - I'm actually referring to Rose West.

St.Nix 11:16 pm, 18-Aug-2012

@Doesn't matter, hilarious, you probably felt so big there twisting the far more eloquent comment from Marxist around and try and insult him/her. But yeah it was fairly obvious to anyone with a brain cell that when s/he referred to evil monster called West still breathing, they meant Rose! Oh and it's incarceration and I think after centuries of us using it as punishment we're already fairly used to it yeah?

Markxist 12:17 am, 19-Aug-2012

Appreciate the support St.Nix but really it's ok, if there was any offence meant it wasn't received as such anyway. Thanks

Nick 1:25 am, 19-Aug-2012

I'm sick of all of you liberals. I know - please don't patronise me - that no-one has managed to prove that the death penalty is a deterrent to child murderers. I have yet to see where it is proven that it isn't either. And I fail to see why we have to keep the Bradys, Hindleys and Huntleys of this world alive in case their execution doesn't serve as a deterrent. If killing all 3 saves even one kid, then they have chosen their paths and their loves are forfeit.

dastard 5:07 am, 19-Aug-2012

@Gareth, This is one of a few articles you've written that I've felt compelled to comment on. While not always in agreement with your worldview, your subject matter is always thought provoking. Regarding the death penalty, I'm against it. Killing is not a good form of justice. To end an evil persons life? It could be seen as necessary if that person posed a continued threat to others. In prison the likes of Huntley, Brady and co don't. How do we punish them? Locking them up is not satisfactory to the families of the victims and society at large. I have 2 associates that have worked or do work in prisons that house killers and sex offenders. Let me assure all of you that every day for them is a bad day. Professionalism and adherance to the rules by prison workers only extends so far. There are things that go on that correctional officers just don't seem to see when it comes to despised inmates, if you get my meaning. Don't think its cushy in there for them. Death is not a real punishment, nor a deterrant.

Gareth 9:57 am, 19-Aug-2012

Thanks to everyone who took the time to read this and add comments. This is a complex issue that inspires emotive responses, so I appreciate the fact that this didn't turn into a slanging match. I don't expect the world to agree with me, only that people take the time to consider both sides of the argument. Every viewpoint, no matter how strongly felt, deserves to be challenged every once in a while. And that was really the point of this article.

mike 2:25 pm, 20-Aug-2012

in one word , yes.

Tamsie 2:19 pm, 21-Aug-2012

Never agreed with the death penalty and this subject despite its emotive subject isn't going to change my mind. I think there should be far more natural life terms for people like Huntly and I don't think they should have any privelliges in jail at all. The US has had capital punishment for deacdes and shows no sign of their murder rate diminishing at all. As a deterrent the death penalty just doesn't work.

Kitty 7:49 am, 22-Aug-2012

@Nick I think, Nick, that the burden of proof is on us, before we green-light state-sanctioned murder, to be certain that it'd have any difference other than to make us feel a bit better.

Rich Thompson 9:17 pm, 22-Aug-2012

Cold bloodied killers serve no part in our society and cost the tax payer millions to keep alive. They have relinquished any right to life and should be extinguished like the lives they have taken and destroyed.

washishu 12:59 pm, 29-Aug-2012

I know what you mean Gareth; I used to think that I had very definite views on fatherhood. Then I saw an episode of The Simpsons and it challenged my deeply-held views on the matter.

Newt 12:16 pm, 9-Sep-2012


Justine 8:20 am, 17-Sep-2012

I think you are misinformed and ignorant to the stronger arguments for the death penalty, you merely highlighted the weaker arguments of pro death penalty to support your anti death penalty view. This is a tactic often used by people who cant handle a strong debate of whatever issue they are passionate about. For example, id be curious to know what your response would be to convicted killers who do not want to be rehabiliated? For those offenders that are bent on destruction the death penalty ensures that they will never have the opportunity to kill again.

washishu 12:24 pm, 20-Oct-2012

Put them in a big hole and sprinkle them with agricultural chemicals.

Knappa 1:47 am, 26-Nov-2012

I think child/serial killers should spend the rest of their natural lives in solitary confinement, fighting their 'urges' in total isolation with no means of venting. No writing materials, no TV, radio, books - and no one to talk to. And given only the most basic of 'privileges' that human rights laws demand i.e. food, water and a toilet - just enough to ensure a prolonged, miserable existence.

roy69 1:56 am, 16-Dec-2012

our lord jesus christ saide before his death as he stood a child in front of his desciples "whosoever would be an offence to one of these little ones should have a millstone hung about his neck and should be cast into the sea". if the spirit that made and died for the law has given us his judgment in his absence who are we to argue against him. by letting these live who have pratted against the fears of society . you have destroyed the hope of the world.that the spirit that created it would deminish from the force and purpose to salvation of such as the most ill treated small and bullied in the world. and then glory that the health of the planet ,the lack of oil , the emergence of terrorists and churches are a haven for paedophiles.concerning youre name what would you clear up first? in 1969 the death penalty was abolished in britton,the rest of the world followed suite,and the world gloried in the thought that the innocent man who was fated to be executed had been saved, evil beasts were spared .i say to revive the spirit of this nation you must make sence to it and its peace is so pretecious when the question of the death penalty comes because its blood is up everyone you meet says bring it back .a tabloid will do a telephone vote and somehow its 50/50 .restore what you took from the world britton ,the world is full of people pratting against each othher forming sides but just making bullies out of youreselves too because you have viley put the chief thing on youre plate to the back of youre mind secrtely accepting the person of those who advocate on behalf fo these vile pratts.and pratting is just terrorism.cull the child murderers of which we are totally sure they will never know when we will come back in that judgment ,that is our trump card .and all them scum peadophiles who havent killed a kid will be reinstated as the lowest of the low and not a transgressors to a killer.

Matt 5:40 pm, 15-Feb-2013

I think it is an INSULT to all the families of the victims to ask SHOULD THEY GET the death penalty? Absolutely they should! LAWS NEED TO CHANGE. This is becoming too much of a lesser crime each time it happens, simply because the law isnt harsh enough.

Stan Dalglish 9:38 pm, 20-Feb-2013

Yes. Next question. The two prisoners who killed the bloke who tortured and killed his girlfriends daughter was murdered in jail last week? They are in court for this? Should give them a fucking medal. Don't give me an PC bollocks. An eye for an eye.

Harry Paterson 3:23 pm, 21-Feb-2013

Yeah, let's give the state the right to kill its citizenry. Top idea. I can see the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six and sundry other victims of Brit justice (the finest money can buy) applauding enthusiastically.

DAVE 5:13 pm, 13-Apr-2013

Hi Harry,getting out of your pram again I see Keir Hardie ?,,, To address the emotive subject you refer to above,I cannot conceive,that there would be many people who would advocate state-sanctioned murder in modern you? mention the above is total bollocks..those two were famous mis-carriages of justice..NOBODY is implying they should have been executed...but as regards to murder cases referred in the blogs above, and I could add evil scum like Jeremy Bamber and Ian Huntley, those two have been proven to have committed their crimes...and,I belive all those flth scum should pay the ULTIMATE PENALTY..cheers HARRY, love your articulation and sarcasm

Arf Arfur 4:06 pm, 23-Aug-2013

Incarceration of evil killers is the best outcome.Fred West and Shipman killed themselves because they could not handle the prospect of life inside.Sadly,they cheated our concept of 'justice'.

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