Miscarriages of Justice: Where It Was Not Just Freedom at Stake!

If you say the words “capital punishment” to anyone you will get a varying degree of opinions on the subject. Capital punishment has always been (and will always likely be) a strong topic for debate. No matter whether you are for or against the death penalty in Great Britain, it has to be acknowledged that there have been several instances of miscarriage of justice throughout the years.

It may surprise you to know that capital punishment was not fully abolished in the UK until 1998. From 1838 it was rarely used except for acts of murder, but also pertained to treason, espionage, causing fires or explosions in a naval dockyard, and for military offences such as failing to prevent a mutiny. So although capital punishment was abolished for murder in 1965, it was not abolished for these other crimes until the change in the law in 1998. Even though the last execution by hanging in England took place in 1964, the death sentence was still handed out to criminals until 1965 (many of whom were either released from prison or given life imprisonment instead).

With the advancements in technology, forensic science and criminal investigation over the years, it has become apparent that there was room for error in the capital punishment system. Indeed, there have been several famous miscarriages of justice that have come to light since the death penalty was abolished.

Probably one of the most famous miscarriages of justice that has been highlighted in recent years is the case of Timothy Evans. Mr. Evans was a van driver with an IQ of 70; he lived in a London building with his wife and his young daughter. Below him lived a man named John Christie.

On 30 November 1949, Timothy Evans walked into a Welsh police station and told officers that he had found his wife dead in their home and disposed of her body down a drain. When police visited his London home, they found the strangled remains of his wife and daughter in the backyard. Although Evans initially confessed to the murders, he later accused his neighbour Christie of the killings. John Christie was a witness at Evans’ trial in 1950. The result of the trial meant that Evans received the death sentence for the murder of his daughter; he was hanged on 9 March 1950 in Pentonville Prison.

Three years later a West Indian tenant found the bodies of three women in a papered-over cupboard in the former flat of John Christie. Two more were found in the garden and one under the floorboards. John Christie, a special constable in the War Reserve Police initially admitted to killing four women, one of whom was his own wife, Beryl. During his trial he then admitted to the killing of Mrs. Evans, though he still maintained that he had not killed the young daughter of Timothy Evans. Christie received the death sentence for the murder of his own wife.

There were several reports after the trial of John Christie. The first stated that Evans was still guilty of killing both his wife and daughter. It was not until the Brabin Enquiry in 1966 that Timothy Evans was granted a posthumous pardon. The report concluded that although it is likely that Evans killed his wife but not his daughter, since he had been charged for his daughter’s death he was granted the pardon.

One of the other most famous miscarriages of justice cases in Britain is that of Derek Bentley. Known to have a mental age of 11 and deemed unable to face cross-examination in a courtroom, many people pressured the authorities into giving him a posthumous pardon. The fact that Derek Bentley was 18 and his accomplice (Christopher Craig) was only 16 also raised the fact that Bentley could be given the death penalty but Craig couldn’t. It seems that even though it is thought that Christopher Craig fired the shots that killed Police Constable Sidney Miles on that fateful night in 1952, the judiciary was hell-bent on someone paying the price for the deaths of one of their own.

There will always be reasons and facts presented on both sides as to whether capital punishment should be re-instated in Britain. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but the system needs to be 100% flawless in order to quash the chances of people being awarded reprieves after their deaths.