On the face of it, the Oxford Centre for Criminology might not be the most obvious place to establish a new research unit focusing on the death penalty, given that the UK abolished this punishment more than five decades ago and the wider region of Europe has also embraced abolition, with only Belarus continuing to impose and occasionally execute death sentences. But Oxford Criminology has long focused on penal policy and practice and was for decades the home of the leading UK death penalty researcher, Professor Roger Hood, who sadly passed away on 17 November 2020. It is fitting, therefore, that Oxford will build on his pioneering scholarship through its new Death Penalty Research Unit (DPRU).

Oxford’s focus on penal reform

Late in 1965, the UK enacted the Murder (Abolition of the Death Penalty) Act which suspended and effectively abolished the death penalty for murder in England, Scotland and Wales[1] following a period of Parliamentary campaigning, changing social mores about punishment and a series of miscarriages of justice.[2] Just a few months later, the Oxford Penal Research Unit was established, working closely with policy makers and civil society to help to bring about penal reform. But just as the abolition of capital punishment in the UK, and elsewhere in Europe, was preceded by years of campaigning and intellectual activity that today would be recognised as a human rights movement, so too was Oxford’s new research unit founded on years of scholarship that had penal reform at its core.

Dr Max Grünhut, a staunch opponent of capital punishment, arrived at Oxford University in 1939, having been stripped of his professorship at the University of Bonn in 1933 after falling foul of the Nazi ‘Aryan Clause’. Grünhut, author of many articles on penal topics including capital punishment, found refuge at All Souls College and pursued his scholarship in criminology. He was appointed to the first university lectureship in Criminology in 1947 and remained at Oxford until his retirement in 1960. It was Grünhut’s successor, Dr Nigel Walker, who established the Penal Research Unit in 1966, while in 1973 his successor, Dr Roger Hood, changed its name to the Centre for Criminological Research to reflect the broader range of interests and research activities of its members (since renamed the Centre for Criminology, in 2004, to reflect the increased focus on teaching).

Though the scholarship of Grünhut, Walker and Hood was diverse, all were motivated by penal reform and opposed to the death penalty. They shared a commitment to the rights and dignity of the individual, respected and guaranteed by law, and to a broader social justice, without which—they argued—punishment could not be legitimate.

Like his predecessors, Roger Hood was liberal and humanitarian in his approach but also pragmatic. He saw the value of academic work in policy making and sought to influence penal policy on both the national and international stage throughout his long and successful career, ensuring that his own research, and that of his colleagues and his students, had an impact. He established Oxford as a leading site of empirical criminological research and engagement and while he worked on many topics­—including juries, prisons, parole and the history of crime and justice—he was best known for his contributions to the study of the death penalty.

Oxford and the Death Penalty

After more than a decade of developing expertise on the British judicial and parole systems, in 1988, Roger was invited to be a consultant to the United Nations on the death penalty, a role he continued until 2005. During that time, he researched and prepared three quinquennial Reports of the Secretary-General on Capital Punishment. He was also a Member of the British Foreign Secretary’s Death Penalty Panel from 1999 until it disbanded in 2015 and consultant to various international organisations that work on the death penalty worldwide; most importantly, to The Death Penalty Project (London) (The DPP), the partner organisation of the DPRU. 

In 1988, Hood’s work for the UN was published as the first international survey of the retention and administration of the death penalty and that project has grown to five editions, published by Oxford University Press (I co-authored the 4th and 5th editions – 2008 & 2015). After his retirement in 2003, he continued his death penalty research, producing public and ‘elite’ opinion research in various jurisdictions and writing, lecturing and consulting on capital punishment, particularly in Asia and the Caribbean, often in collaboration with The DPP. 

I have continued his work on the death penalty; co-authoring The Death Penalty: A worldwide perspective and carrying out opinion research in partnership with The DPP, as well as research into foreign nationals at risk of capital punishment in Asia and the Middle East. Our work has put Oxford on the map in terms of death penalty research, but we have also sought to develop the next generation of scholars.

Since we launched the Oxford Criminology MSc programme at the start of this century, we have offered a module on the death penalty that proves each year to be very popular with students from around the world. Twenty years of teaching on the death penalty has created generations of students that better understand its inefficacy at meeting the goals of punishment, its unfairness in application, and the challenges of finding methods of execution that do not cause intolerable pain and loss of dignity. I have supervised doctoral students who have produced theses on the death penalty, some focused on the US but increasingly with interests further afield, particularly in Asia where the death penalty is used more widely and more often than on any other continent.

When I first worked in this area, twenty years ago, I was occasionally asked why we teach a module on capital punishment when the UK abandoned this practice just after I was born. My responses made clear that while I was interested in the history of abolition, for me and for most of my colleagues throughout Europe, interest is sustained by its administration across other continents. Our research should not only scrutinise local practices, but the global world we live in. As students are increasingly exposed to human rights in the classroom and asked to consider the relevance of theoretical frameworks developed in the North for the Global South, they are paying attention to justice and punishment systems of countries they may not have even visited. Such is the globalisation of our discipline and we should welcome that. Indeed, this increasing globalisation of criminological research encouraged us to establish our Global Criminal Justice Hub in 2016, as part of the Centre’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

But scholars such as me could not teach and research the death penalty, or indeed many of those subjects we have developed expertise in at Oxford, without the work of civil society organisations around the world.

Parvais Jabbar (The DPP) and Carolyn Hoyle give the plenary presentations at the Annual Human Rights Conference, University of Indonesia
Parvais Jabbar (The DPP) and Carolyn Hoyle give the plenary presentations at the Annual Human Rights Conference, University of Indonesia

Engaging with our partner organisations

In writing each edition of The Death Penalty: A worldwide perspective, Roger and I scrutinised the many reports produced each year by NGOs that focus on human rights and on the death penalty in particular. We sought to draw on and build on the efforts of The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Hands off Cain, the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, Reprieve, Penal Reform International, The Death Penalty Project, and, of course, Amnesty International, which produces authoritative reports on the death penalty each April. This powerful group of advocates for abolition and defenders of the rights of those who may be subject to the death penalty also do an excellent job of collating data that serves as an important resource for scholars.

These organisations provide aggregate and case-based data to demonstrate the failure of capital punishment to meet contemporary human rights standards in those countries that still retain it. They show the inappropriate scope of the crimes and persons punishable by death; the failure to protect the disadvantaged and mentally ill; the paucity of resources and inadequate procedures to ensure fair trials; the failure to provide proper clemency proceedings; and the dreadful state of death rows in many countries. Their data allow us to compare the practice of capital punishment with the international standards set by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights of those Facing the Death Penalty. In so doing, we find evidence of arbitrariness, discrimination and error in death penalty systems and procedures—whether mandatory of discretionary—in each and every country that retains this punishment. For these and many other reasons, the DPRU is committed to continued engagement with relevant organisations around the world.

‘Impact’ and ‘partnerships’ with charities, NGOs and civil society more generally are key to ensuring research access, funding and influence today. Some younger academics may presume we have adopted this new way of working for purely instrumental reasons, as the current mechanisms for judging the success and influence of academic institutions emphasise the importance of partnership working, not only in disseminating our results but in developing our research programmes. But in Oxford, as in many universities, criminology has always engaged beyond the academy and been keen to influence politicians and policymakers and be of direct benefit to the ‘users’ of our research, to use a uniquely 21st century concept. It should by now be clear that our death penalty scholarship has been no exception. Indeed, Oxford would not be a leading centre of death penalty scholarship without such collaborations.

Roger’s role at the UN, referred to above, came about because the then leader of Amnesty International’s campaign for worldwide abolition of the death penalty, Eric Prokosch, was asked by the UN Secretariat to find a criminologist to work with them on this issue. While American death penalty scholars were focused on laws, policies and practices within the borders of the United States, and some UK criminologists couldn’t see the point in researching an obsolete punishment, Roger was interested in developing a global perspective.

But while his entry into death penalty scholarship came via Amnesty International, his empirical research was developed along with The DPP. The absence of empirical criminological and socio-legal research in all but a very few retentionist jurisdictions other than the United States had been a serious impediment to greater knowledge about how the death penalty is administered worldwide. In 2003, this began to change as Roger was commissioned by The DPP to undertake empirical studies on the death penalty, including on the use of the death penalty in Trinidad and Tobago, a country with an exceptionally high homicide rate which still retained the mandatory death penalty for murder.

This project marked the start of a long and fruitful relationship during which time Roger and, more recently, I collaborated with The DPP on empirical research on the death penalty in Asia, Africa, and The Caribbean. The reports produced have influenced practitioners and policymakers and have the potential to influence governments, as we saw most recently when the President of Zimbabwe wrote the Foreword to our report on opinion formers views on the death penalty. He stated that “It is my sincere hope that, in the near future, Zimbabwe will formally abolish the penalty by removing it from our statute books.” It is my sincere hope too, but while we wait for that to happen, those of us involved in the work of the DPRU will continue to educate ourselves on death penalty laws and practices worldwide and to encourage death penalty scholarship more widely.

We will develop theoretical, empirical and policy-relevant research on the death penalty and, importantly, produce and disseminate knowledge in cooperation with civil society, charities, legal practitioners and local academics in those countries where research is ongoing. We will do this working with our partner organisations in Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, Australia, Iran, Singapore and beyond, but in particular with The DPP. We hope to develop our network of scholars, practitioners, campaigners, and others interested in the death penalty and invite them to contribute to our work, using this blog as a mechanism for engagement and education. We welcome contributions to our new blog, so, do get in touch!

Carolyn Hoyle, Director of the DPRU

[1] The death penalty for arson in the Royal Dockyards was abolished by the Criminal Damage Act 1971. The death penalty was completely abolished in the United Kingdom in 1998, with enactment of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, s 36 and with the Human Rights Act 1998, s 21(5).

[2] For an engaging study of the events that led to abolition, see J. B. Knowles QC, The Abolition of the Death Penalty in the United Kingdom, The Death Penalty Project, 2015.