History of Capital Punishment Abolishment and Public Shifts

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Table of Contents

  • A Compromised Step Toward Abolition Under Harold Wilson's Labour Government
  • Shift in Attitudes towards Capital Punishment: Analysis of Cases
  • Conclusion
  • References

Capital punishment can be defined as the practice of executing someone as punishment for specific crimes, it can only be done by a state and after a legal trial. The four crimes in Britain that were punishable by death were murder, treason, piracy with violence and arson in particular locations such as government docklands. Although people were only ever sentenced to death due to murder. The last hanging in England took place in 1964 and it was abolished on all accounts in 1998. Many students choose to write capital punishment essays to explore the ethical and legal complexities surrounding the practice of state-sanctioned executions. However, this essay will look at why capital punishment was abolished by discussing key events that contributed to the abolition such as key murder trials, a gruelling campaign for the abolition, as well as reasons for and against capital punishment that ultimately lead to the abolition.

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A Compromised Step Toward Abolition Under Harold Wilson's Labour Government

During the 1920s and 1930s, there was a growing controversy over whether or not the death penalty should be abolished. After the Second World War, it had become even more of a discussion topic. Those in favour of the abolition of the death penalty had faith in Clement Attlees new labour government but support from the public had gone down since the 1930s as one poll reported only 40% being in favour. Some historians have linked this to the experience of war, claiming that it enabled people to view the world in moral terms of understanding as 'good' and 'bad' resulting in more people believing in retributive punishment. Another reason was the rising crime among young people. The violence and what Stanley Cohen referred to as a moral panic caused by youth culture created anxiety by those who were pro abolition as well as those who were already against it. The worries surrounding crime as well as the labour government labelling capital punishment as an effective deterrent lead to the public opposing the abolition. Sydney Silverman, a man who strongly opposed capital punishment founded the national campaign for the abolition of capital punishment. He wrote about a number of cases where the justice system had failed those that mattered most, for example when an executed man Timothy Evans was later found to be innocent. On June 28, 1956, Silverman introduced a private member's bill to abolish the death penalty, which was approved by 200 votes to 98 in the House of Commons in a free vote, however, it was rejected in the House of Lords. Ultimately, Silvermans efforts lead to a compromise and the homicide bill was passed. It included degrees of murder, such as murder in the course of theft, murder of a police officer and murder by shooting or causing an explosion to name a few. The homicide bill did not impress the abolitionists and was seen to have been a failed attempt and no further changes were made until 1960 despite the bill being completely dissatisfactory. Although not entirely successful it was a step in the right direction towards abolition of capital punishment which took place eventually under Harold Wilsons labour government.

Shift in Attitudes towards Capital Punishment: Analysis of Cases

Attitudes towards capital punishment started to change due to the fact the arguments against the abolition were weak and people also began to realise there were holes in the arguments thus resulting in a shift of their attitude. Arguments in favour of capital punishment include retribution, deterrence, closure and vengeance, and rehabilitation. Arguments against capital punishment include value of human life, execution of the innocent, the belief that vengeance and retribution is wrong, and the uniqueness of the death penalty. The argument behind retribution is that all guilty people should be punished and that they suffer in a way that is appropriate specific to the crime committed. Each criminal should get what their crime deserves and in the case of a murderer what their crime deserves is death. However, the belief in retribution is used in a different way in relation to the death penalty because other criminals who committed different crimes such as rape or assault did not receive punishments of equal measure, for example a rapist would not be sexually assaulted as their punishment. So it seems flawed that only murderers would receive the same punishment. Therefore, this argument is rather weak and contradicting of itself. Those against capital punishment would argue that retribution is more like vengeance and that 'an eye for an eye' is more revenge rather than justice. Another argument is that the death penalty does not really act as a deterrence. If it did, people would have stopped committing the seriously violent crimes, but they did not. In 1988 a survey was carried out for the UN to determine the relation between the death penalty and homicide rates. In 1966, It concluded that research had unsuceeded in providing scientific proof that executions have a more successful deterrent effect than life imprisonment. Increasing the chances of capture, prosecution, and conviction is the answer to true deterrent. Another very important argument is that innocent people inevitably get killed, due to mistakes or flaws in the justice system. Witnesses, prosecutors and jurors can all make mistakes. When this is coupled with flaws in the system, innocent people suffer and once capital punishment has taken place, it is already too late. This leads us on to key murder trials that had significant contribution to the abolition of the death penalty and forced people to further change their opinions on the matter.

A key murder trial which was very important in the abolition of capital punishment was that of Timothy Evans who was wrongfully accused of murdering his wife and child and was executed in 1950 because of it. Three years later police found multiple bodies in the block of flats where evans had lived. It was discovered that a man named John Christie who also lived in the building had murdered all these women that were found, including evans wife and child. There were numerous amounts of evidence that the police failed to find three years prior which could have prevented evans from being executed. This case forced the public to realise why capital punishment was wrong and why it needed to be abolished. Another important case was that of Ruth Ellis. She was the last woman to be hanged and was convicted for the murder of her lover David Blakely. She suspected one of her lovers of having an affair with their nanny, although he was not. Feelings of jealousy and anger lead her to wait for David to come out of a pub named the Magdala in Hampstead heath and shoot David in the street. It was her current boyfriend that drove her to the pub and she later revealed to her lawyer that it was he who gave her the loaded gun as well as showing her how to use it, however, there was no evidence to support this. When arrested she remained calm and never showed any sort of violence during her whole time in prison. This case is particularly depressing because although she did murder David, she had been badly abused by him to the point where she once had a miscarriage because he punched her in the stomach. Despite many of the public having signed petitions asking for clemency as well as 35 members of London city council, she was hanged at London Holloway prison in 1955 and claimed her title as the 18th and final woman to be hanged in Britain. This case was so memorable because despite her having murdered and at the time in the justice system there being no other punishment, it still does not mean she deserved to die and this case along with Timothy Evans' proved crucial in people's attitudes changing which resulted in the abolition of capital punishment. Peoples attitude changed as they were worried more innocent people would be put to death. Capital Punishment was finally abolished under Harold Wilsons government in 1969.


In conclusion, capital punishment was abolished with the help of a long and hard - fought campaign and the help of Sydney Silverman along with the public. The publics shift in attitude also had an impact as they realised it did not create retribution, rather it was vengeance and was not deterring anyone from committing the most violent crimes. And finally, due to several significant murder trial cases, including Timothy Evans and Ruth Ellis, the public and the government finally realised capital punishment had to be abolished.


  • 'Deadly Indifference: The Perfect (Political) Storm: Hurricane Katrina, The Bush White House, and Beyond' by Michael D. Brown
  • 'The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective' by Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle
  • 'Against Capital Punishment: The Anti-Death Penalty Movement in America, 1972-1994' by Herbert H. Haines
  • 'The Abolition of the Death Penalty in the United Kingdom' by R. A. Duff, Journal of Law and Society, 1996
  • 'Public Opinion and the Abolition of the Death Penalty in the United Kingdom' by C. G. Lord, Punishment & Society, 2007
  • Amnesty International: 'Abolish the Death Penalty' (
  • Death Penalty Information Center (
  • Encyclopedia Britannica: 'Capital Punishment' (

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