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Wednesday, 21 August, 2002, 15:10 GMT 16:10 UK
Death penalty call renewed
James Hanratty, who was hanged in the 1960s for the notorious A6 murder
The death penalty 'could deter murderers'
The death penalty should be "available" to the UK justice system for use in the most heinous of crimes, according Ann Widdecombe.

The Tory former Home Office minister made the claim as heightened emotion over the murders of Cambridgeshire's Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells has prompted commentators across the nation to consider the return of capital punishment for child killers.

If you can save life by having a death penalty ... there is an argument to be made

Ann Widdecombe
Ben Page, from pollsters MORI, said that three-quarters of the population consistently say they believe the death penalty "is suitable in some circumstances", although lethal injection is the preferred method.

But the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev Michael Turnbull, said a return to state execution would mean society admitting defeat.

Save innocent lives

Miss Widdecombe, a Catholic and a supporter of a ban on hunting, said she had never believed in using the death penalty as a means of retribution.

But she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "If it can be shown that it is a real deterrent and its availability, not its regular use, is enough to deter murderers and save innocent lives, then I think that is a case that can be made."

Ann Widdecombe
Widdecombe: Not after retribution
Miss Widdecombe argued that in the five years up to 1970 when the death penalty was suspended, statistics showed that capital murder went up 125%.

"I am not running around this morning, banging drums, calling for the restoration of the death penalty, because I think if you are going to have it, you first of all need it to be done very rationally and secondly not just on a tide of outrage," she said.

"I am not interested in retribution, I'm interested in saving life.

"Now if you can save life by having a death penalty, regardless of what methods used are ... then I would maintain that there is an argument to be made."

Remove rituals

Limits to the type of punishment would need to be made to ensure that it was not "long and protracted and exceptionally cruel".

"I would also like some of the ritual to go away, the black cap, the eight o'clock walk - none of these are necessary," said the Maidstone and the Weald MP.

She warned that the UK must not follow the same route as America.

Holly Wells (left) and Jessica Chapman
The best friends were missing for two weeks
"I think the big weakness in the US is the large amount of time that elapses in their dreadful system of people being on death row for 10 years at a time between the conviction and the application of punishment, we frankly have never had that in this country."

Miss Widdecombe said she did not believe juries would be unwilling to find a defendant guilty if they knew he would be executed.

High emotion

"When we did have a death penalty, juries still did convict," she said.

"I do not think it is at all likely that, particularly with the grosser and more horrible crimes, that juries who, after all do not have the responsibility of sentencing - that's for the judge - that juries would just release people."

But Miss Widdecombe admitted: "The miscarriage of justice is the single strongest argument against it."

The Rt Rev Turnbull said a time of high emotion, generated by public anger to the deaths of Holly and Jessica, was not the time to make radical changes to the law.

He said using capital punishment would rule out the chance of rehabilitating offenders - an essential element of current sentencing.

"If we are admitting defeat by putting the death penalty into place and killing off those who have committed dreadful crimes, then I think that is a detriment to society as it stands," he told Today.

James Hanratty

But Miss Widdecombe added that she regarded the debate as vacuous as there was no appetite for a return of capital punishment within parliament.

"One of the first acts of this government was to change the law to make capital punishment now something that will be determined by Europe and not by us," she said.

In 1969, Parliament voted to suspend the death penalty indefinitely. Repeated calls for its return have been consistently rejected.

A mandatory life sentence was introduced in its place.

James Hanratty, 25, was one of the last people to be executed before the abolition of capital punishment in the UK after he was convicted in 1962 of shooting dead scientist Michael Gregsten in Bedfordshire.

See also:

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