The half of the eighteenth century, condemned felons

The offenders were not put to death at once but were subjected to slow process of amputation by bits so that they suffer maximum pain and torture. The condemned offenders were often executed publicly. These brutal methods of condemning the offenders were, however, abandoned by the end of eighteenth century when the system of transporting criminals to distant American Colonies at their option was firmly established.

Dr. Fitzgerald observed that the history of capital punishment in England for the last two hundred years recorded a continuous decline in the execution of this sentence. During the later half of the eighteenth century as many as two hundred offences were punishable with death penalty.

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The obvious reason for the frequency of execution was the concern of the ruler to eliminate criminals in absence of adequate police force to detect and prevent crimes. The methods of putting offenders to death were extremely cruel, brutal and torturous.

As the time passed, the severity of capital punishment was mitigated mainly in two ways: Firstly, this sentence could be avoided by claiming the ‘benefit of clergy’ which meant exemption from death sentence to those male offenders who could read and were eligible for holy Order. Secondly, the prisoners who were awarded death sentence could be pardoned if they agreed to be transported to American Colonies.

During later half of the eighteenth century, condemned felons could be transported for seven years in lieu of capital sentence. In course of time, death punishment for felony was abolished, and in 1853, the system of transporting criminals also came to an end and a new punishment of penal servitude was introduced.

Commenting on the frequency of executions during the eighteenth century Donald Taft observed that during no period in the history of western civilization were more frantic legislative efforts made to stem crime by infliction of capital punishment as in that century.

In his opinion, the growing importance of this punishment was owing to the agrarian and industrial changes in the English society resulting into multiplicity of crimes which had to be suppressed by all means. Supporting this view Radzinowicz observed that more than 190 crimes were punishable with death during the reign of George III in 1810.

However, with the advance of nineteenth century, the public opinion disfavoured the use of capital punishment for offences other than the heinous crimes. Bentham and Bright, the two eminent English law reformers opposed frequent use of capital punishment. Sir Samuel Romilly also advocated a view that the use of capital punishment should be confined only to the cases of intentional and wilful murder.

The irrevocable and irreversible nature of death penalty gave rise to a number of complications which invited public attention towards the need for abolition of death sentence. Consequently, the British Royal Commission on Capital Punishment was appointed in 1949 to examine the problem.

As a result of the findings of this Commission, death sentence was suspended in England and Wales for five years from 1965 and was finally abolished by the end of 1969. However, the constant rise in the incidence of crime in recent decades has necessitated Britain to re-assess its penal policy regarding death penalty. The two latest decisions of the Privy Council emphatically stressed that the award of death sentence is not violative of human rights or fundamental rights.