WWII Codebreaker Alan Turing Granted Royal Pardon

The man who helped crack the Enigma code during World War II has been given a posthumous pardon.

1. World War II codebreaker Alan Turing has been pardoned by the queen over a criminal conviction for homosexual acts in the 1950s.

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Turing was a maths genius who played a key role in cracking Germany’s Enigma code at Bletchley Park during World War II, helping to bring the conflict to an early end while still in his twenties. He then went on to help develop early computers at the University of Manchester.

But in 1952 Turing was convicted of “gross indecency” under Victorian legislation after police became suspicious about inconsistencies in his report of a robbery at his Cheshire home. Further questioning led him to admit that he had been sleeping with a 19-year-old man.

Following the conviction, Turing chose to be chemically castrated with female hormones rather than go to prison, lost his government security clearance, and was banned from entering the United States.

He died of cyanide poisoning two years later, aged 41, with an inquest concluding that he had committed suicide.

2. Turing’s pardon followed a long-running parliamentary campaign backed by supporters, including Stephen Fry.

Flickr / Creative Commons / Tris Linnell / Via flickr.com

An online petition backed by Stephen Fry and Stephen Hawking resulted in former Prime Minister Gordon Brown issuing a formal apology for Turing’s treatment back in 2009.

But attempts to formally pardon the scientist faltered, with both the Labour government and its coalition successor arguing that Turing had been correctly convicted of what was then a criminal offence and saying they were reluctant to rewrite history.

The U.K. government has not issued a parliamentary pardon but has instead used a legal device designed for people who were wrongly convicted under the law as it stood.

3. Issuing such a pardon using the Royal Perogative of Mercy is highly unusual.

Since 1945 only three people in England and Wales have been given such a pardon, all involving cases of murder or attempted murder. Even then the pardon has only been issued when the individual has been considered to be “conclusively innocent” of the offence and where a request has been made by a family member.

The British government waived these conditions to reflect the “exceptional nature of Alan Turing’s achievements”.

(The queen played no part in the actual decision making process since the government exercises this power on her behalf.)

4. Supporters of the campaign celebrated.

8. However, Turing was just one of thousands of men convicted under the law.

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The queen has formally indicated that the sentence was wrong in the case of Turing, while Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said Turing deserved a pardon because his sentence would now be considered “unjust and discriminatory”.

But Lord Sharkey, the Liberal Democrat peer who tabled a parliamentary bill calling for Turing to be pardoned, has pointed out that around 75,000 men were convicted of the same offence before it was repealed in 1967. Approximately 49,000 of those — including the playwright Oscar Wilde — are now dead, but only Turing has received a formal pardon.

Sharkey hopes that highlighting the case of Turing will lead to a pardon for all the men convicted under the legislation, which was passed in 1885 following just four minutes of debate in the House of Commons.

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