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Today in history... Ruth Ellis case sharpens death penalty debate

12:00am | & Lifestyle

Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, kept her appointment with the executioner 65 years ago today, on Wednesday July 13th, 1955.

The 28-year-old former model and nightclub hostess was convicted at the Old Bailey of shooting her lover, 25-year-old racing driver David Blakely, outside a North London pub on Easter Sunday.

Public opinion was already beginning to turn against the death penalty and the Ellis case heightened the debate. During the trial it emerged she had suffered a miscarriage just 10 days before the shooting, after Blakely punched her in the stomach. More evidence suggested he had been repeatedly violent towards her and that she was mentally unstable at the time of the killing, but the legal defence of “diminished responsibility” did not exist in English law at that time and Ellis was duly convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

On the night before the execution a crowd of 500 people gathered outside London’s Holloway Prison singing and chanting in protest. The prison governor called for police reinforcements, but some protestors broke through the police cordon to bang on the prison doors.

Thousands also signed a petition calling for the death penalty to be revoked in Ellis’s case, including 35 prominent members of London County Council. But Home Secretary Major Lloyd George rejected final appeals for a reprieve on the day before the execution.

It was carried out by the Chief Executioner, Albert Pierrepoint, who travelled from his home near Preston, Lancashire. The identity of public executioners was generally kept secret, but Pierrepoint’s was uncovered by the press when he hanged more than 200 convicted Nazi war criminals after the Second World War. During his career he hanged around 435 people and was recognised by the Home Office as the most proficient executioner in British criminal history.

However, Ruth Ellis would be one of his last as he resigned in January the following year. The official reason was a disagreement over his fees, but there is considerable evidence, including from his own autobiography, that he had come to believe the death penalty served no purpose as a deterrent.

Public opposition to capital punishment continued to grow, fuelled by several cases in which those hanged were later found to have been wrongly or unsafely convicted. Even so, the death penalty in the UK was not suspended until 1965 – 10 years after Ruth Ellis’s execution – and permanently removed in 1970.

The last executions in the UK took place on August 13th, 1964, when two men were hanged simultaneously at prisons in Liverpool and Manchester for a murder they committed together in April of that year.

However, the death penalty remains in force in many countries around the world, including more than 30 states in the USA. In some cases, prisoners spend years, even decades, on “death row” while protracted appeals and legal arguments over their cases drag on. In May 1913 one Florida prison inmate, Gary Alvord, died of natural causes more than 39 years after he was sentenced to death.

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