Hawking, other scientists petition UK to pardon Alan Turing

Alan Turing, heroic WWII code-breaker, was convicted of 'indecency' as a result of his homosexuality at a time when this was illegal in the United Kingdom. The government has apologized but never formally pardoned him. 11 leading UK scientists sent the government a letter seeking to change this. "In a letter to the Telegraph, Prof Hawking and ten other signatories call on the Prime Minister to "formally forgive" Turing, whose work at Bletchley Park is widely credited with helping bring an end to the Second World War." (via the Telegraph)


  1. He shouldn’t be pardoned. His conviction should be quashed. To pardon him would be to confirm that he was indecent but to pardon that crime. The state should confirm that the persecution of gay people was wrong by reversing the convictions of those that it persecuted. 

    1. Pardoning seems to say “the conviction was correct according to the law of the time, but morally indefensible” (that is – he did do it, and it was illegal, but in hindsight it wasn’t wrong).
      Retroactively removing the conviction is more “in hindsight, he didn’t actually do it”.

      Of the two, the first one seems like a stronger moral statement to me.

      1. Pardoning doesn’t always say that.  Pardoning can also mean there seemed to be sufficient evidence to convict at the time, but the final authority, the Executive, retrospectively thinks otherwise: that there MAY NOT have been sufficient evidence at the time, or there is doubt in the law itself, or the Executive is aware of corrupt practices that now mean the conviction should be overturned.  Or any other reason that the Executive deems applicable.  It was the right of Kings to have final say in the application of the law, at any time. To this day, we still bestow that power on the Executive in the UK and USA.  That is the true nature of a pardon.

    2. This comes up occasionally in US jurisprudence. If you’re alive, you have to affirmatively accept a pardon, and doing so is construed as admitting to the crime.

      But Bill Clinton (to take the one example I recall offhand) pardoned a black Army officer from the 19th century who had been convicted of “conduct unbecoming an officer” in a sham court-martial convened by a racist superior. Obviously a dead man can’t admit guilt, and obviously commuting his sentence (the usual alternative) is pointless. Nor can his conviction be vacated or quashed, as I understand it, once he’s dead, for various reasons that very finicky legal scholars insist are important for the coherence of the whole body of law. (For similar reasons, Ken Lay of Enron™ infamy remains technically unconvicted of his crimes, since he was actively pursuing post-conviction appeals when he died.)

      Anyway, my point is, that’s the legal end of it. But nobody thought Clinton was dishonoring this officer by calling attention to the injustice of his conviction. It’s entirely in how you choose to look at it, and in how it’s framed. It’s not like they’re going to attach a note to his pardon saying, “Her Majesty’s Government is very sorry to have unjustly accused Mr. Turing of the beastly crime of homosexuality.”

  2. There was already a relevant petition, which was answered. http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/23526

    1. Well, if we can’t make everything perfect, then by all means, let’s not do anything at all.

      1. Well, he wasn’t saying that.  (I didn’t read the link in full: it goes into more depth than I’ve got time for right now.)

        I think a pardon for Turing is proper because, however misguided and immoral the law was at the time, it was enacted legally.  But a pardon for Turing and no one else?  That shows that the government is just bowing to pressure in this one egregious instance.  It hasn’t actually realized that what it was doing was wrong.

  3. He should be pardoned first, on the basis that he might have committed a crime but the law was dubiously written, and so he might also NOT have committed the crime.  There is no way to prove he was definitively “homosexual”; perhaps he was bisexual or something else.  Perhaps, once in his life, he felt affection towards a woman, and there is no way to prove that he did or didn’t.  So there is doubt in the law, and doubt about his crime, and so therefore he should be pardoned for that conviction.

    Second, the law should be retroactively vacated, and all those convicted under it, pardoned, and their convictions vacated. As if the convictions never happened, because the law never happened. 

    But it did.  SO, a third step to right this injustice would be a second apology: to Turing’s descendants, and all people convicted under the old, bad laws that no longer exist and should never have existed in the first place.

    Fourth would be to set up a fund for an organization to actively pursue anti-defamation of individuals based on sexual orientation.  This would show that governments take discrimination seriously, and will not tolerate it.  Sexual discrimation is the last bastion of sanctioned bigotry in many 1st world countries, and this includes both institutionalized homophobia as well as sexism and discrimination against the transgendered.  Setting up systems that actually fight against it actively would be a good show of faith that governments take the issue seriously.

    This should cover the bases for erasing this bad old practice that current so-called legal “experts” become entombed in their own illiquid inflexibility of thought and refuse to act because of their warped perspective that old wrongs should not be righted.  With the law, there is ALWAYS A WAY to right past wrongs.  The past cannot be undone, but its lingering trailing effect on the present day can be unravelled and shut down permanently, in terms of the law.

    It doesn’t rewrite history.  It doesn’t change people’s feelings, at least not immediately.  But where the law leads, general opinion will follow.  It can start with Alan Turing, and finally doing precisely what is right.

  4. I am actually a little conflicted about this.  On the one hand, I think it is important that we never forget the awful treatment of a national hero, and recognise that there was a time when the uk had awful homophobic laws.  However, the idea of pardoning a person, suggests that we are forgiving them, and this is the wording actually used in the letter above.  But we have no business forgiving anyone for being homosexual, because being homosexual is not the kind of thing that people need to be forgiven for (since this implies fault).  In fact, to my mind, pardoning Turing would actually benefit the uk government, since it would allow them to draw a line under the matter, implying that this historic wrong has been put right – and I don’t think this should happen.  Right now, Turing’s story stands out as a tragic example of a man mistreated by the society he did so much for, who suffered greatly at the hands of laws that today seem abhorrant.  And it is important to that story that there is nothing we can do to put that right and all we can do is try to learn from it, and try to ensure that in the future, we are better.

    1. You can do plenty of things legally in absentia. If that weren’t the case the law would grind to a halt very rapidly indeed.

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