Now here’s something to make you think, especially those who support the return of capital punishment in the UK. Yesterday the prosecution in the case of Sam Hallam announced in the Court of Appeal that it would not be resisting his appeal against his conviction for murder back in 2005. His conviction was based largely on mistaken identification but was also the result of useless and lazy policemen who couldn’t be bothered to check out his alibi.
For a young man who has always protested his innocence and for his family and supporters this is fantastic news. The Court ordered his immediate release from prison pending the giving of its formal judgment later this week. But just hold on a minute and consider this: Sam Hallam’s first appeal against his conviction was heard in 2007 and was rejected by the Court of Appeal. If we had still had the death penalty in the UK it is a sure-fire bet that Sam Hallam would have been dead now for several years.
When we did have the death penalty in the UK the period between final appeal and execution was measured in weeks not months. Sam Hallam, an innocent man, would have been executed! Anyone who believes we should restore the use of capital punishment in the UK should consider that sobering thought long and hard.
The simple fact is that we are all human and mistakes get made. Bent coppers, corrupt prosecutors and lying or simply mistaken witnesses are a sorry fact of life.
By a curious coincidence on the same day as the Court of Appeal announcement in Sam Hallam’s case a story broke in the United States that is one that will haunt supporters of the death penalty in that country. After a painstaking four-year period of research by Professor Liebman and a group of students at Columbia Law School, they have produced a lengthy report which seems to establish beyond any reasonable doubt that Carlos DeLuna executed in the state of Texas in 1989 for murder was the victim of a simple mistaken identity. The real killer, a man called Carlos Hernandez was so similar in appearance that even DeLuna’s sister could not tell them apart from some photographs she saw. The prosecution said DeLuna was lying and no such man as Hernandez even existed.
Years later when Professor Liebman asked a private investigator to look for signs of this man he found the proof of his existence in less than one day. He was a man with a record of violent offences against women and he had a penchant for carrying exactly the type of knife used in the murder. He even bragged to others than another man had carried the can for what he, Hernandez had done. Hernandez died of natural causes in prison in 1999.
Shouting from the rooftops
This case is sure to unsettle many Americans who still believe in capital punishment. It may even cause disquiet to such an ardent fan as Justice Antonin Scalia of the US Supreme Court. Some years ago he stated in the course of argument in a capital appeal that there had not been a single case in which it was clear that an innocent man had been executed for a crime he did not commit. ‘If such an event had occurred,’ he said, ‘the innocent’s name would be shouted form the rooftops.’
Well now he may have to reconsider that statement because the name of Carlos DeLuna can now be clearly heard across the rooftops. His name is the nightmare that supporters of the death penalty have always feared they might have to face because they know that support for the death penalty depends on never having to confront the terrible prospect that an innocent has been murder by the state. There will be many sleepless nights ahead for those who still believe the state has the right to execute its citizens.
In reality the case for the return of the death penalty in the UK has been defunct for many years. There is already a long list of innocent people who would have been executed in the UK if we had still had the death penalty, headed by the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four. The case of Sam Hallam has just ensured that that argument should never again he heard. All that opponents of capital punishment need to say to those who still try to argue for its return are two words: ‘Sam Hallam.’ Game over.
Mark George QC
Mark George QC is a highly experienced defence trial advocate of more than 30 years' experience. Mark works from Garden Court North chambers