Negotiated death sentences for heinous criminals in Britain 2019

Expressing surprise at the few votes required for an acquittal, Socrates joked that he be punished with free meals at the Prytaneum (the city’s sacred hearth), an honour usually held for a benefactor of Athens, and for the victorious athletes of an Olympiad.1 Socrates negotiating his sentence.

At the time, Utah had two methods of execution firing squad or hanging. Believing a hanging could be botched, Gilmore chose the former, declaring, “I’d prefer to be shot.” The execution was set for November 15 [1977] at 8 AM. Gary Gilmore negotiating his execution.2

British politicians have a problem with heinous criminals. Releasing them is politically dangerous as it leads to accusations of being ‘soft on crime’. Politicians have legislated whole-life tariffs into existence to resolve this problem. Therefore notorious prisoners can’t embarrass politicians. Whole-life tariffs square the circle of a blood-thirsty popular press and anti-capital punishment advocates. The whole-life tariff is very unusual in Britain and is a quasi-death sentence. Whole-life tariffs are a lethal and no-one should resile from this fact. Obviously more cruel than execution perhaps criminals should be able to negotiate the manner of their death.

The experiences of Socrates and Gary Gilmore are millennia apart but suggest solutions to the politicians conundrum: What’s a proportionate sentence for a heinous crime? Capital punishment isn’t a sentencing option for British judges. What’s available are whole-life tariffs. Criminals sentenced to a whole-life tariff are never released. The Wikipedia list of those currently (2018) incarcerated shows many serve decades. Virtually all were relatively young when sentenced.3

Torture is excruciating pain deliberately inflicted. This concept includes mental torture. The paradigm for mental torture is a loved one being tortured in front of you. A whole-life tariff is mental torture for some criminals. It’s as inhumane as physical torture.

In 2017 the European Court of Human Rights confirmed that the whole-life tariff on Arthur Hutchinson was neither an inhuman or degrading punishment. Hutchinson, 75, has been in prison since 1983. The European Court focussed on a key point, which is that there is an opportunity for release on ‘exceptional grounds’, such as ‘having only a few weeks to live’. This piece of judicial casuistry ruled that whole-life tariffs were neither inhuman or degrading.4 Their judgement is pure sophistry. The concept ‘release’ implies the resumption of normal life. Dying outside prison walls isn’t freedom. ‘Freedom’ to die outside prison walls can plausibly be interpreted as a further punishment taunting the ex-prisoner when in extremis.

Whole-life tariffs are meant to inflict suffering. Suffering lethal imprisonment is deemed by both the British and European judges as proportionate to the heinous crimes committed. Both sets of judicial authorities oppose capital punishment and torture so what’s the place of mental torture in this discussion? Usually those sentenced are virile young men (it’s mostly men). They’ll live in a homosexual environment regardless of their sexuality, constrained and without the possibility of family life. The entire underpinnings of civilised life are deliberately stripped away.

Socrates was faced by an impossible life after sentence and so he manipulated the court into awarding the death sentence. Socrates was an elderly man making an end-life choice. Gilmore calculated hanging could be botched but a Utah firing squad wouldn’t miss: he chose the latter. Socrates and Gilmore accepted punishment. It’s impossible to imagine Socrates willingly choosing to rot in prison for decades3 when an Athenian-style managed suicide was an elegant option. Gilmore specifically rejected appeals against execution and negotiated an agreed execution method. British legislators could learn from these historic examples.





This entry was posted in Philosophy, Politics, Prison reform and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Negotiated death sentences for heinous criminals in Britain 2019

  1. Peter Baxendale says:

    What do you imply/suggest by your last sentence,Chris. I trust it is not what I may erroneously infer?

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