Segments in this Video

Capital Punishment and Society (02:29)


Public opinion tends to favor executions. The debate over capital punishment has shaped our ideas about how a civilized society should punish its citizens in the 21st century.

Bloody Code and Public Executions (04:23)

The 'Bloody Code' was the name given to the English legal system from the late 17th century to the early 19th. In the 18th century, the death penalty was applied to over 200 offenses. Executions were public spectacles.

Execution as a Deterrent (01:46)

Hanging often ended in slow strangulation; friends pulled on a victim's legs to hasten death. Everyone knew that social class determined who would be executed.

Trial by Jury (03:05)

The accused faced a trial by jury drawn from the local community. Juries regularly sought to commute the sentences or to beg for mercy on behalf of the defendant. The elite in society were indifferent to inequality in the system.

Reform Government (01:49)

By the 1830s, the Whigs brought in a reforming agenda. Many statutes of the "Bloody Code" were repealed. Dismantling the code had an immediate effect on the Victorian justice system. Juries were less hesitant to convict.

Crime and Punishment in Early 19th Century England (02:10)

Victorians became fearful of crime as a result of a new, mass urban population stimulated by the Industrial Revolution. Victorians sought for new ideas regarding punishment.

Criticism of Public Executions (01:59)

The educated elite criticized public executions. Authors Dickens and Thackeray attended and wrote about public hangings; both were appalled by the behavior of the crowds. The first real movement to abolish capital punishment took hold.

Abolishment of Public Executions (03:44)

The Church of England backed capital punishment. The last public execution was in 1868. Gallows were moved inside the prisons, and authorities sought a more systematic and dignified way of killing.

Punishment in an Enlightened Society (03:18)

A shift in punishment occurred in which the locus was away from the body and onto the mind. Taking away life was less civil than taking away liberty. Yet, executions continued inside Britain's prison walls into the 20th century.

Executioner Celebrity (02:44)

By executing Nazi war criminals, Britain and its allies put on a visual show of justice. Albert Pierrepoint was famous as the most prominent hangman of war criminals. He explained some of the intricacies of hanging in a television interview.

Injustice (03:09)

By the 1950s, there was increasing disquiet over continued use of capital punishment. The hanging of 19-year-old Derek William Bentley, whose mental incapacity was withheld from a jury, aroused public sympathy for the vulnerable boy.

Ruth Ellis Case (03:03)

In 1955, the Ruth Ellis case aroused public empathy. People questioned whether a crime of passion should carry a mandatory death sentence. Her execution was the catalyst for a campaign against the mandatory death penalty.

Blind Justice? (04:04)

Britain's Homicide Act caused confusion. It was not clear why some sentences were carried out and others commuted. In 1964, Parliament voted to abolish capital punishment for five years. The debate over capital punishment continued to rage.

Notorious Murder Case (03:27)

Within a year of the suspension of the death penalty, five children were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by two killers in what became known as the Moors Murders. The killers received mandatory life sentences.

U.S. Suspension of Capital Punishment (03:45)

In 1967, capital punishment in Britain remained only for treason and piracy. France and Spain followed by abolishing the death penalty. In 1972, the U.S. suspended capital punishment, but many states re-enacted death penalty statutes.

Executions on the Rise (02:07)

The U.S. Supreme Court voted to re-instate capital punishment. In 1977, Gary Gilmore was the first person to be executed in the U.S. for ten years. By the end of the 1990s, around 100 people were put to death each year.

Documentaries on Capital Punishment (02:59)

British lawyers took up cases in the U.S. that challenged America's right to execute. "14 Days in May" is one of a number of British documentaries that attacked capital punishment in America.

Miscarriage of Justice (03:58)

Margaret Thatcher, Britain's Prime Minister, supported capital punishment. The finality of capital punishment is not supported by an infallible system of justice. There is a serious risk that innocent people will be killed by the state.

International Abolition of Capital Punishment (02:11)

In 1998, the death penalty in Britain was completely removed. By 2010, 139 countries had abolished the death penalty. It is believed that China executes more people per year than any other country.

America and Capital Punishment (02:10)

In America today, the use of capital punishment is less widespread. In 2010, American states that chose to use the death penalty have been challenged on the basis of infringement of human rights.

Credits: "Death Sentence: The Story of Capital Punishment" (00:29)

Credits: "Death Sentence: The Story of Capital Punishment"

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Death Sentence: The Story of Capital Punishment

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A few centuries ago, state-sanctioned killing was thought of mainly as a control mechanism—a deterrent to crime. Thus, a person could be hanged not just for murder but for minor offences such as petty theft. With the emergence of the police force as a civic institution, however, some began to view capital punishment as the sordid appeasement of our communal thirst for vengeance, and today it is a continual source of debate. This program explores the issue through historical examples and interviews with legal scholars. Case studies focus on Derek William Bentley, hanged as an accomplice to murder at the age of 19; Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in the United Kingdom; and Gary Gilmore, the first person to be put to death following the 1976 reinstatement of capital punishment in the United States. Contains mature content. Produced by the Open University. (60 minutes)

Length: 60 minutes

Item#: BVL43760

ISBN: 978-1-61733-714-7

Copyright date: ©2010

Closed Captioned

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