Pardon the Digital Warrior?

08/19/2013 08:20 pm ET | Updated Oct 19, 2013

The British Parliament is warming to the idea of pardoning war hero Alan Turing, after the government gave a frosty reception in 2012 to a petition of 37,000 signatures demanding a pardon for the man widely regarded as the father of the modern computer.

In 1952 the police arrested Turing for having consensual sex with another man in his own home. He was convicted under Britain's anti-gay legislation, the same 1885 law that victimized Irish poet Oscar Wilde and 75,000 other gay men.

Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor and died not long after his release from prison, at the age of 46. Turing, described at his trial as "one of the most profound and original mathematical minds of his generation," did not go to prison but was sentenced to inhumane medical punishment. His body was flooded with female hormones for 12 months, affecting his libido and causing him to grow breasts.

A bill to pardon Turing recently received its first debate at Westminster in the British Parliament's House of Lords.

The legal situation surrounding the bill is labyrinthine. Were Turing still alive today, he could himself apply to have his conviction disregarded under Britain's 2012 Protection of Freedoms Act. But only living victims of the 1885 anti-gay law, which remained in force until 1967, can have their convictions disregarded under the Protection of Freedoms Act.

The bill's proposer, Lord Sharkey, an eminent businessman and one-time student of Turing's student Robin Gandy, says his bill could be a first step toward extending the Protection of Freedoms Act to deceased victims of the unjust 1885 legislation, so enabling the convictions of Oscar Wilde and 49,000 other men also to be disregarded.

Sharkey's bill to pardon Turing was debated only a few days before the House of Lords' summer adjournment. The next move after due process in the House of Lords during the fall will be a debate on Sharkey's bill in the House of Commons, if the bill's sponsors can secure parliamentary time for it.

The government spokesman replying to the debate, Lord Ahmad, said, "[T]he government believe it is right that parliament should be free to respond to this bill in whatever way its conscience dictates and in whatever way it so wills." So Turing might receive his pardon by 2014, the 60th anniversary of his death at age 41.

What do Sharkey and his supporters hope to achieve by a pardon for a dead man? Lord Rees, Britain's Astronomer Royal, put it clearly in his House of Lords speech supporting the bill: "[A]s British citizens, surely we should do all that we can to erase the stain on the reputation of our own criminal justice system." The pardon will be a gesture, he said, to recognize that Britain deplores the way the 1950s legal system treated Turing.

But is it a gesture that Alan Turing himself would have wanted? The House of Lords did not even consider that question. Sharkey and his supporters assume unquestioningly that Turing would have wanted what they want, a pardon. This is the difficulty with Sharkey's desire to extend the Protection of Freedoms Act to the deceased. How can we tell what the victims of the legislation would themselves have wished?

In a letter published in The Daily Telegraph last December, Sharkey, Rees, physicist Stephen Hawking, and other distinguished signatories urged Prime Minister David Cameron "formally to forgive this British hero." But Turing did nothing for which he needs forgiving. Would Turing himself have wanted his conviction set aside, or would he have been proud to remain a shining example of a man convicted under an unjust and wicked law?

A complete lack of interest in what Turing himself might have wanted is not the only ironic feature of this debate. Although Sharkey and his supporters in the House of Lords are determined to right the wrongs done to Turing, they unquestioningly echoed the 1954 coroner's verdict that Turing committed suicide. This verdict is often repeated in the British press and elsewhere. In a recent two-page article in the Daily Mail, journalist Max Hastings wrote that Turing "killed himself by eating an apple coated in cyanide."

However, the bitten apple, found beside the bed where Turing's body lay, might have had nothing to do with his death. The authorities never tested it for cyanide. The apple offers no clue about how Turing died, since it was his regular habit to take a few bites of apple last thing at night.

It is possible that Turing took cyanide deliberately, but it is also possible that he accidentally inhaled cyanide gas from a scientific experiment that was going on in the tiny laboratory adjoining his bedroom.

Police attending the scene found a pan of bubbling liquid in the lab and reported a strong smell of cyanide in the tiny room.

There was no note, nor any evidence that Turing intended to take his own life. Lamentably the coroner's investigation was hasty and shallow. The authorities did not even question the last person known to have spent time with Turing, the engineer he worked with closely every day in his computer laboratory.

If Britain's legislators are going to pardon Turing, they should also see to it that the coroner's unsafe verdict is quashed.

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