The Death Penalty

There will be many law students and human rights lawyers alike who may find themselves having to revisit the arguments for and against the death penalty, not necessarily because they want to, but because of events around the world.

In this country the execution of women was one of the main reasons why our society became increasingly concerned over the continuation of capital punishment.

The country finally showed its unease with the conviction and execution of Ruth Ellis in 1955.  Ruth Ellis was sentenced to death at the Old Bailey following her conviction for the shooting of her lover, David Blakely, outside the Magdala public house in North London.  Some might say that the notoriety came from the participants lifestyles, Ellis was a 28-year-old former model and nightclub hostess, David Blakely was a racing driver and only 25 when Ellis shot him.

The case of Ruth Ellis may be remembered as being the last woman executed in this country.  The death penalty was suspended in 1965 and permanently removed in 1970.

But further notoriety was to follow many years later when her family campaigned for the murder conviction to be reduced to manslaughter on the grounds of the defence provocation. The case was brought to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) who then referred the matter to the Court of Appeal in September 2003.

The defence argued that Ellis was suffering "battered woman syndrome".  Apparently she had suffered a miscarriage just 10 days before the killing.  It was alleged that this was after David Blakely had punched her in the stomach.

The appeal was disallowed.  The appeal judges ruled she had been properly convicted of murder in accordance with the law as it stood at the time of her conviction. Ironically it was as a result of concerns over such cases that the Homicide Act 1957 was passed just a few years later when the defence of diminished responsibility came into being.

The case of Ruth Ellis may have been considered to have been unusual at the time but Alex Hannaford of the Guardian has now drawn our attention to the cruel and unusual case of Teresa Lewis who may become the first woman executed in the state of Virginia for a century.

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