The Sam Hallam case and why the death penalty should become a relic of the past

The freeing of Sam Hallam, the 24-year east Londoner wrongly-convicted of a murder when he was 18, is a triumph for his family and campaigners who’ve fought for over seven years to overturn his conviction.

It’s also a clear reminder of how a justice system - including police investigations, prosecution service behaviour, and the conduct of those at trials - is always prone to misconduct and straightforward error. Even in the UK where, according to some, “we have the best justice system in the world”. In this case there was no forensic evidence linking Hallam to the crime (the gang attack murder of Essayas Kassahun in October 2004), a reliance on faulty eye-witness evidence, the non-disclosure of important evidence by the prosecution, and a failure by the police to properly investigate alternative lines of inquiry, including other potential suspects. In other words, a catalogue of errors.

Remember, this was a murder case. A recent one. And a young person faced being sent to prison for life. So, calamitous mistakes were made, a family was left devastated and indeed, tragically, Sam’s father Terry committed suicide in 2010. The error-strewn nature of this case reminds me, naturally enough, of the Troy Davis case in Georgia, USA, where similarly there was no forensic evidence linking the alleged perpetrator, there was reliance on faulty eye-witness evidence (which later fell apart), and a failure by the police to properly investigate other potential suspects, including a prime suspect. Yet Davis is now dead. Full stop. There will be no reprieve for him.

I can’t, with absolute certainty, say that Troy Davis was innocent, another Sam Hallam. But I can most definitely say that the case against him was riddled with doubt and that even pro-death penalty people ought to worry about it (certainly opinion polls in the USA since Davis’ execution last September have shown a drop in support for capital punishment).

Meanwhile, just this week the deeply disturbing case of Carlos DeLuna in Texas has again thrown up the question: what if the authorities execute an innocent man? (For yet another disturbing case, see this material on Reggie Clemons, the man currently on death row in Missouri. It could be another tragic-miscarriage-in-the-making …).

The flawed, imperfect nature of any justice system - repeat, any justice system - is a big reason why we should never have the death penalty as a judicial punishment. There are plenty of additional reasons: its premeditated cruelty, its uselessness as a supposed “deterrent”, its denial of the possibility of rehabilitation, the way that it ends up (in practice) being applied disproportionately against poor people, racial minorities and the plain badly-represented-at-trial.

As Amnesty figures show, the death penalty is gradually dying out, slowly becoming a relic of the past, but it’s still being used far too often. There’s news today of five men in Malaysia being sentenced to death for drugs crimes, a particularly worrying use of capital punishment in even non-lethal cases (usually drugs) that’s something of a trend in Asian countries.

Going back to the Hallam case, it’s important to say that the murder of Essayas Kassahun was a terrible crime that obviously merited a serious punishment. Being against the death penalty isn’t about being “soft on crime”, it’s about saying let’s ensure that the police, prosecution and prison services spend their time on better policing, crime avoidance, high-quality trials and prisoner rehabilitation. Essayas Kassahun was murdered just 750 metres from where I sit writing this post in the Amnesty office in east London (near the Old Street roundabout), and Sam Hallam’s family live locally in Hoxton. Sometimes things that happen on your doorstep are the best reminder of what matters most.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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