When Henry "Harry" Burnett met his maker in Craiginches Prison in Aberdeen on Aug. 15, 1963, he was the last man in Scotland ever to be hanged. Burnett, only 21 years old at the time, was convicted one month prior for the murder of a merchant seaman named Thomas Guyan. That killing -- the result of a messy ménage a trois involving a woman named Margaret May -- occurred on May 31, meaning that from the moment of the murder, Burnett was arrested, tried, convicted and executed in less than three months. No Scotsman has since been hanged. (The last execution in England occurred in 1964).
Interestingly, Burnett, who had a history of mental illness and had attempted suicide in the past, did not appeal his death sentence, although the family of the victim sought a reprieve for him. Even doctors claimed Burnett was insane or at least mentally diminished at the time of the murder. According to a BBC report, some 300 people assembled outside the jail as Burnett was hanged. Less than two years later, the government suspended the death penalty for a period of five years, making abolition permanent by 1969.
The abolition of the death penalty in Scotland has coincided with a drop in violent crime over the past four decades. In June of this year, the Scottish government reported that all recorded crime declined by 13 percent in just one year, while non-sexual violent crimes plunged by 21 percent, falling to 39-year lows. "Scotland is a very safe place,” said Deputy Chief Constable Rose Fitzpatrick, from Police Scotland, about the crime figures. "The statistics … demonstrate that it is a great place in which to live and work and that policing in Scotland is very effective.”
However, pockets of high crime remain a problem in Scotland, particularly knifings and rapes, which periodically trigger calls for the reinstatement of the ultimate punishment for violent criminals – even from church officials. In August 2011, the Rev. William Macleod, from the Knightswood Free Church of Scotland, demanded that those who commit the most heinous of crimes should pay with their lives. "People are disgusted and angered by despicable crimes, such as terrorist attacks, pedophilia and the brutal killing of children, yet feel so helpless to do anything about it,” he said, according to the Clydebank Post. “Murderers get off with just a few years in prison. Capital punishment acts as a deterrent for the good of society -- the murderous criminal who is executed will certainly not be committing any more hideous crimes. … I wholeheartedly believe that the more the country returns to the Bible, the better a nation we will be."
Macleod’s position is not shared by the mainstream Church of Scotland, however. The Rev. Ian Galloway, convenor of the Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland, declared: "[We oppose] capital punishment for three main reasons - firstly, revenge or retribution is not a moral position for an enlightened and civilized society. Secondly, the chance of a miscarriage of justice may mean that an innocent person is killed. Thirdly, it is for the supporters of the death penalty to prove beyond doubt that bringing back hanging will deter crime.” Galloway added: "There is no statistical evidence to suggest that having the death penalty deters terrorists or murderers."
Particularly gruesome crimes also prompt calls for the death penalty. For example, Scots TV presenter Lorraine Kelly publicly advocated for the execution of Mick Philpott, the Englishman who caused the deaths of six of his own children by deliberately setting his house on fire. Philpott received a 17-year prison term. “I am not usually in favor of the death penalty, but in his case I would be prepared to make an exception,” Kelly said of Philpott, whom she described as a “cold-blooded killer” and “notorious benefit scrounger.”
With respect to Scotland, perhaps the most horrific crime in recent decades was the Dunblane Massacre, when a man named Thomas Hamilton gunned down 17 people, including 16 schoolchildren, in March 1996. Hamilton’s monstrous crimes might have spurred debate for the resumption of the death penalty in Scotland – except for the fact that he killed himself after murdering all those people, rendering the subject moot.
However, while violent crime has been falling in Scotland, its jails have been filling up with inmates at a record pace. In June 2012, the Scots government noted that its prison had an annual daily average inmate population of 8,178 – an all-time high – and that this figure would jump to 9,500 over the next decade.
"Crime is going down in this country and is now at its lowest level since 1975, yet the number of prisoners has increased by two thirds over the past two decades,” said Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, who defended the practice of locking up hardened criminals, but not those convicted of minor crimes. "These figures confirm what we already know - that without action the prison population will continue to grow. We are clear that prison remains the only place for locking up serious and dangerous criminals and keeping them off our streets, but we can't keep packing more and more low-level offenders into our jails and giving them free bed and board. Community sentences are proven to be more effective than prison at reducing reoffending."