Belated Justice For Turing

Dec 30 2013 @ 7:35pm

Alan Turing, the great British mathematician who cracked Nazi codes and later killed himself after the government chemically castrated him for being gay, received a posthumous royal pardon last week, 61 years after his conviction (NYT). Peter Tatchell wants the pardon extended to everyone convicted under the “gross indecency” law, which remained on the books until 2003:

Why him alone? Singling out Turing for a royal pardon just because he was a great scientist and very famous is wrong in principle. The law should be applied equally, without fear or favour, regardless of whether a person is a well-known high achiever – or not. Selective redress is a bad way to remedy a historic injustice. At least 50,000 other men were convicted under the same ‘gross indecency’ law from the time it was first legislated in 1885 until its repeal in 2003. They have never been offered a pardon but deserve one, equally as much as Turing. An estimated 15,000 men of these men are still alive. It is not too late for them to receive a measure of justice in the form of a royal pardon.

Ally Fogg is on the same page:

Turing should be forgiven not because he was a modern legend, but because he did absolutely nothing wrong.

The only wrong was the venality of the law. It was wrong when it was used against Oscar Wilde, it was wrong when it was used against Turing and it was wrong when it was used against an estimated 75,000 other men, whether they were famous playwrights and scientists or squaddies, plumbers or office clerks. Each of those men was just as unfairly persecuted, and many suffered similarly awful fates. To single out Turing is to say these men are less deserving of justice because they were somehow less exceptional. That cannot be right.

Back in July, David Allen Green suggested an alternative to pardoning Turing:

A recent statute – the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 – provides a scheme where those who had been convicted of the section 11 offence (and similar offences) can apply for their entire criminal records to be removed if the facts of the case would no longer count as a crime. It would be as if the offence had not been committed at all. These are not pardons – they go much further: the 2012 scheme removes the taint of criminality altogether, and with no fussing about not affecting the conviction or the sentence.

But the 2012 scheme is only for those still alive. However, there is no good reason why it cannot be applied retrospectively. It would have the merit of consistency.

Cass Sunstein warns us against congratulating ourselves on our current enlightenment:

In much of the world, same-sex relations remain a criminal offense. Just last week, the Ugandan legislature passed a law that would impose life imprisonment for homosexual activities. It wasn’t until 2003 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex acts couldn’t be criminalized. Most states continue to forbid same-sex marriages. In other domains, even democratic nations authorize practices that will be seen a few decades from now as cruel and unjust, prompting future generations to ask: How could they have done that? This week’s long-overdue pardon was a good way to pay tribute to Alan Turing. An even better way would be to scrutinize our own practices with that question in mind.