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No Second Chances?

Suspension of the death penalty in the UK (9 November 1965)

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5

Aims

To consider attitudes to punishment at all levels in society (SEAL theme: Self-awareness).

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a leader and two readers.
  • Have available the song ‘I shot the sheriff’ by Bob Marley or Eric Clapton and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.

Assembly

Leader: We are now going to travel back in time to over 50 years ago.

Reader 1: On 13 August 1964, shortly after 8 o’clock in the morning, Peter Anthony Allen and Gwynne Owen Evans both died. Peter Allen was in Liverpool; Gwynne Evans was in Manchester.

Reader 2: They were both taken, at the same time, from their prison cells in Walton and Strangeways jails, to a place of execution, where a noose was placed around each of their necks.

Reader 1: A trapdoor opened beneath their feet, they dropped a distance of 6 feet and they died.

Reader 2: They were the last people in the UK to suffer the death penalty for the crime of murder.

Leader: That is because 50 years ago, on 9 November 1965, the death penalty for the crime of murder was suspended in England, Scotland and Wales. Over the next few years, this suspension was confirmed in the whole of the UK. Capital punishment, as it is known, was totally abolished. There’s been a debate about the issue, however, every year since then.

Reader 1: In the last 50 years, there have been some horrendous murders, which surely deserve the most severe punishment. 

Reader 2: Some have involved the murders of children.

Reader 1: Others have involved the murders of women. 

Reader 2: Policemen have been murdered in the line of duty, trying to keep our towns and cities safe. 

Reader 1: Doctors and other medical staff have been found guilty of the murders of, sometimes, dozens of patients placed in their care.

Reader 2: All that’s on top of many other crimes that may not have resulted in death, but have, nevertheless, been extremely cruel and altered the lives of the victims forever.

Readers 1 and 2 together: Surely sometimes there should be an ultimate punishment for unforgiveable crimes?

Leader: What do you consider to be the purpose of punishment?

Some people would argue that it’s important to have a deterrent - a punishment that is so harsh it puts criminals off. It makes them stop and consider whether or not they should go through with their crime. Something that makes them think, 'Is it worth what I will lose if I'm arrested and convicted?'

The death penalty is seen as the ultimate deterrant. There is no way back. Some will say that capital punishment is simply natural justice. If a life is taken by murder, then the murderer’s life should also be taken. It’s the natural extension of what the Old Testament parts of the Bible say: 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'.

If you agree with this point of view, it’s necessary to consider a few things.

First, what if there’s a miscarriage of justice? There have been many examples of this. DNA tests, particularly, have called in to question many sentences. Some of these have been given to alleged murderers, who have been shown subsequently to be innocent of these crimes. They have been released and allowed to continue their lives. Someone who has been executed and is later proved innocent cannot do this. A death sentence, once carried out, cannot be repealed. 

Second, there’s the question of whether or not we have the right to take the life of another human being. Isn’t the right to life a basic human right? Is an execution any different from a murder simply because it’s carried out by a government?

Third, a death sentence allows no possibility for the person who is given it to change. Jesus spoke of the opportunity everyone has to turn their lives around and walk along a better path. There are countless stories of men and women who have admitted their guilt and chosen the way of peace, justice and right thereafter. When he was nailed to the cross, Jesus spoke to one of those being executed with him, someone whose guilt was never in question. He told him that, even at such a late stage, he could choose forgiveness and a new life. Jesus suggested that no crime, mistake or choice is unforgiveable.

Thankfully, we don’t have the death penalty here in school, but the question behind it - about what the purpose of punishment is - is relevant. When there are instances of bad behaviour, cheating, violence, disrespect, prejudice or any of the other various ways in which students violate the school's code of conduct, what should be the consequences?

Some consequences would be, first, to deprive students of their time, social interaction or other opportunity. There are detentions, isolation or suspension. The intention behind these is to deter students from doing the same thing again.

Do they work? For some students they do, but not for everyone. For some they’re simply a slight inconvenience.

The more effective consequences, I believe, are those that are intended to change attitudes and behaviour by helping students understand how and why there are more positive, more constructive ways to act. Bringing together victims and perpetrators, allowing the victims to voice how they feel, is one way. Creating time to discover exactly why some students act in antisocial ways, what the pressures are on them, who’s pulling their strings, is another. We want to offer the opportunity to walk a slightly different path, one that serves the needs of the individual. That’s what true justice is all about.

Time for reflection

Let’s take a moment to think about that final point - the possiblity of a real change of heart should be available to all.

Prayer
Dear Lord,
Thank you that, in your eyes, nothing is unforgiveable.
Help us to admit our guilt and responsibility when we do wrong.
May we choose to travel along the better path.
Amen.

Music

‘I shot the sheriff’ by Bob Marley or Eric Clapton

Song/music

‘I shot the sheriff’ by Bob Marley or Eric Clapton

Publication date: November 2015   (Vol.17 No.11)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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