No Hanging Here

When Noel and Marie Murray were sentenced to death in 1976 for the capital murder of Garda Reynolds there was a widespread belief that it would be unthinkable that the Coalition Government, comprising so many self-confessed liberals, would not commute the sentence to life imprisonment. In the event the issue didn't arise because of the intervention of the Supreme Court but there has been telling evidence since then that, had it come to a decision by the cabinet at the time, there would have been a majority in favour of execution.


Thus there should be no complacency now that the question of the death penalty has arisen again with the sentencing of Peter Pringle, Colm O'Shea and Pat McCann for the capital murder of Garda Morley in Roscommon last July. The issue is made all the more pressing by the consideration that it was Charles Haughey, who, as Minister for Justice in 1963, insisted on the retention of capital punishment for certain specific offences, including the murder of members of the Garda Siochana, when he introduced a Bill for its abolition in other cases. Haughey was a very progressive Minister for Justice - arguably the best Minister of that Department ever, and arguably better than anyone who succeeded him - thus it was surprising that he didn't go the whole hog at the time and abolish the death penalty entirely. He explained his attitude in the Dail at the time in the following terms:


"It will be accepted, I think, that persons who murder from political motives will not be deterred by the prospect of imprisonment. According]y, the Government decided that treason and any form of 'political' murder must continue to be punishable by death...As regards murders of members of the Garda, it must be borne in mind in this country the police are unarmed and have a special claim to whatever additional protection the law can give them by providing the deterrent of the death penalty against the violent criminals they have often to contend with." (November 6, 1963. Dail Debates. Vol 205 Col. 1103).


Certainly since its return to office in 1977 Fianna Fail has proved less reactionary than the Coalition was, but in view of this previous attitude of Charles Haughey on the death penalty and in view of the unjustified complacency on the issue in 1976, it is now again necessary to state the case against the death penalty and campaign for its abolition.


The main arguments are as follows: (1) The possibility of executing an innocent person.


All our institutions are fallible and will always be. While there is a duty on our courts to convict only when the prosecution case has been proved "beyond all reasonable doubt", there is no absolute certitude to the verdicts of even the fairest and most meticulous judicial process. But we are far from such process here at present.


The Special Criminal Court sits without a jury – this factor in itself, because it is derogation from the normal judicial system and therefore more fallible, should be sufficient reason for the death penalty to be abrogated in all cases dealt with by the Special Criminal Court.


There are, of course, other reasons for reservations about convictions from that court. The court does not have the normal immunity from interference by the executive in that the usual protections of judicial independence do not operate - one member of the court is there solely at the discretion of the Government and can be removed at any time as he has passed the normal retirement age. The court also has shown a persistent tendency to believe Garda evidence whenever there is a conflict of testimony - this has been particularly so when the admissibility of a defendant's statement has been challenged on the grounds that it was obtained involuntarily.


(2) There is no evidence that the death penalty would be a deterrent in present circumstances.


The most crucial deterrent in the commission of all crime is the likelihood of being caught. The performance of our own police force and of police forces in most "western" countries is such in recent times that there is a good chance of getting away with almost any crime. Therefore, the presence of the death penalty, or indeed its absence, is mostly irrelevant. Police forces nowadays "solve" crimes primarily through "confessions". Rarely is there even any supportive evidence adduced by the prosecution in cases nowadays. The fact is that as a profession the police are pretty inept, their use of forensic science has been clumsy and their development of technological innovation has been poor. This may have to do with standards of recruitment into police forces and with the kinds of crude political pressure to which they are subjected.


Whatever the reason it is clear that defenceless beings (i.e. people held in jails and entirely unable to defend themselves) should not pay the price through the death penalty on the spurious grounds of "deterrence", when the major deterrent is being missed by the inadequacies of our police force. In any event there is absolutely no reason to believe that the "politically motivated" people here who have been involved in the commission of capital murder would be affected at all by the deterrent of capital punishment. Members of militant republican organizations risk death quite frequently in confrontations with the British army and in handling explosives - what reason is there to believe that the prospect of being hanged if caught would make a difference to their actions?


(3) The death penalty demeans our society.


To take a defenceless person out of a jail cell, place him/her on a scaffold and hang that person in cold blood in the name of society degrades that society. We have been bombarded in recent years with the slogan "the sacredness of human life". If human life is sacred then how can it be taken in so callous and predetermined a manner? The fact that the person to be hanged may have taken several human lives is of no consequence. Hanging this per

son will not restore the lost lives, it will merely further degrade humanity.


(4) The imposition of the death penalty will merely add to our store of bitterness and conflict.


Enough lives have been lost, enough grief been caused, enough bitterness engendered without adding further to this store. The executions of the civil war, so vividly recalled in the Robert Kee Television History of Ireland, caused a cancer in Irish society which has only recently abated. Are we to learn nothing from the barbarities and miscalculations of the past?


For these reasons we oppose the death penalty and call for its absolute abolition. We call on our readers to support the campaign for its abolition.