The Prime Minister and clemency

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The execution of Nick Ingram, scheduled for next Thursday, is a brutal and horrific prospect. Ingram, a British subject, is due to die by electrocution, a method that will cause intense suffering as his body is tortured by a huge electric current. He will, in essence, be burnt alive: it could take up to 20 minutes. This is a killing that any humane person should do his or her utmost to prevent.

Ingram may not be an obvious object for our sympathy. He was convicted in the United States 11 years ago of a vicious murder. According to the evidence, he tied a couple to a tree and shot each of them in the head, killing the man, during a burglary that went wrong. He has been on Death Row in Jackson, Georgia, ever since.

Yet the cruel murder does not justify exacting barbaric retribution from Ingram. First, there is doubt about the soundness of the conviction, both in terms of whether he actually pulled the trigger and whether he was responsible for his actions at the time of the killing. Once he is dead the sentence cannot be revoked. There have been many cases, both here and in the US, of individuals having murder convictions overturned posthumously.

But even if we could be certain about Ingram's guilt, killing him would still be wrong. Capital punishment brutalises society. It undermines the notion that life is sacred, and thus diminishes the horror that most people have of deliberately and coolly killing a fellow creature. However inadvertently, judicial killing weakens rather than strengthens our deep-seated taboo against murder. There is no evidence that capital punishment deters potential murderers.

The majority of people of the United States are apparently not persuaded by these arguments and the Constitution has failed to protect the civil rights of the condemned. But here in Britain, Parliament decided 30 years ago to stop hanging.

Parliament has not changed its mind. And John Major, by voting against the restoration of capital punishment, clearly agrees with that stance. The Prime Minister must now live up to his publicly expressed views and exercise whatever pressure he can to make the US authorities grant a reprieve.

Mr Major may be tempted not to intervene. He heads a government that is trying to look tough on crime. His Home Secretary, Michael Howard, has in the past voted for capital punishment. In other cases, such as those of Kevin Barlow and Derrick Gregory, executed in Malaysia, the Foreign Office failed to win clemency.

But in this instance the Prime Minister has considerable leverage, given Britain's close relationship with the US. During his visit there next week he should see it as his personal responsibility to take the matter up at the highest level. The principle should be clear. Britain does not accept capital punishment either here or anywhere else.