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Inside the final moments of Britain’s last executions

James Whale calls for return of capital punishment

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Just 25 years ago, there was a small chance that someone could be sentenced to execution in the UK. But on November 9, 1998, Britain totally abolished capital punishment for all capital offences, meaning no one could be killed as a result of their crimes — a move celebrated by many.

The country’s last executions, however, remain in living memory for swathes of the country: Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen, who were sentenced for murder in 1964.

Barely months after they were executed in 1965, new legislation passed that saw capital punishment outlawed for those facing murder sentences. But the scope for execution remained. It wasn’t until decades later when the House of Commons offered MPs a free vote for Britain to adopt the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights that things completely changed.

The motion, which would see death given as a sentence in only “times of war or imminent threat of war” was passed by 294 MPs to 136. Weeks later The Criminal Justice Bill then removed High Treason and piracy with violence as capital crimes, which effectively ended capital punishment.

But for Evans and Allen their names will always be linked with the gallows. Both men were found guilty of murder after turning on one another following the death of John West on April 7, 1964.

Reports show that Mr West, a 53-year-old driver for a laundry firm, had been beaten and stabbed to death by Evans and Allen, who went on to rob his home in Seaton, Cumberland.

Both of the men were unemployed, with a history of crime, and were arrested and charged within 48 hours of the horrendous act being committed.

At the time of their sentencing, public opinion had begun to sway towards abolishing the death penalty, and so when the judgement was passed that the two men would be killed for, many were stunned by the decision.

They appealed the strict sentencing on July 20, 1964, but the following day Lord Chief Justice Lord Parker of Waddington, Mr Justice Winn and Mr Justice Widgery dismissed it, setting a date of August 13, 1964 for their execution.

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Legislation at the time noted that the Home Secretary, then-Henry Brooke, was tasked with considering whether the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, should be advised to exercise the “prerogative of mercy and commute the death sentence to life imprisonment”.

Statistics from the period, however, note that the chances of this succeeding were slim. Of the 48 death sentences passed since 1957, only 19 had been given reprieves. At the time no executions had been ordered in 1964, and just two had the previous year.

Other criminals had been given a second chance, including a nearby murderer in Lancashire, whose case led many to believe Evans and Allen would be given a similar amnesty. A petition was launched, but ultimately failed.

Just three days before their sentence, the Home Office sent out a note explaining that Mr Brooke had “failed to discover any sufficient ground to justify him in advising Her Majesty to interfere with the due course of law” in either man’s case.

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And so at 8am on that bright summer’s day the two men were hanged. Evans in Manchester’s fabled Strangeways Prison by executioner Harry Allen, assisted by Royston Rickard, and Allen in Liverpool’s Walton Prison, by Robert Stewart, supported by Harry Robison.

In a devastating twist for members of Evans’ family decades later in 2017, the National Archives released reports that demonstrated his “serious psychological problems”. Had his defence team entered his plea as diminished responsibility on these grounds, Evans would have avoided his brutal sentence.

In the years since the final death sentences were issued, public opinion for reinstating it as a form of punishment has continued to diminish. A YouGov poll from March this year noted that only 40 percent of Britons support the death penalty, compared to 50 percent against, and 10 percent who are unsure.

YouGov noted that Conservative voters were more likely to support the death penalty compared to Labour backers. And those aged 65 and above were more than twice as likely to back a return to the policy, compared to youngsters between 18 and 24 years old who were not.

While questions remain as to whether it should be reinstated, Albert Pierrepoint, a British executioner between 1932 and 1956, once remarked how difficult it was being the one responsible for ending the life of another human.

He said: “The fruit of my experience has this bitter aftertaste: that I do not now believe that any of the hundreds of executions I carried out has in any way acted as a deterrent against future murder. Capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge.”

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