By Andrew Gill
On Friday 18th June 2010 Ronnie Lee Gardner was strapped into a chair in his Utah penitentiary, backed by concrete and lined with sandbags. A white target was attached to his shirt, placed directly over his heart before a prison guard began counting backwards from five. When the count got to two, five volunteer guards opened fire unleashing four bullets into his body, ending his life. Gardner’s crime was double homicide, and the punishment method has drawn attention once more to the debate on whether there is a necessity for Capital Punishment in the modern world.
Almost every society has had a concept of Capital Punishment or ‘The Death Penalty’, which has been used to sentence and deter a number of crimes from public disobedience to murder, and everything in between. However, where corruption and miscarriages of justice are always a possibility, does this very permanent and possibly outdated punishment have a justifiable place?
Capital Punishment has divided World opinion with Europe and much of the West abolishing the practice, whilst major spheres of influence like the USA (34 states) and China as well as less economically developed countries continue to apply it. The chart sourced by Amnesty International indicates the minimum number of executions that they are aware of carried out by each country in 2009.
The executions in the chart were carried out by hanging, shooting, beheading, stoning, lethal injection and via the electric chair. The Chinese figure is an estimate based on previous years and media evidence.
According to Amnesty International two thirds of the World’s countries have abolished Capital Punishment in law or practice, whilst 58 countries still retain this form of punishment for what is considered ‘ordinary crimes’. Generally this penalty is reserved for acts such as murder or high treason, whilst other countries have it for theft, rape, sex with a minor and terrorism. In some nations, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, the death penalty is also used to condemn ‘unnatural’ acts such as homosexuality and other ‘crimes against religion’ like adultery. A shocking consideration to the argument is that Uganda attempted to pass legislation making homosexuality punishable by death in 2009, suggesting that as some countries are getting rid of the death penalty, others are attempting to use it more freely and apply it to acts that the majority of countries would not recognise as criminal. This raises the question of what ‘ordinary crimes’ justify the use of the death penalty, which varies dramatically through culture and religion within the specific countries to what is a criminal, unnatural or sacrilegious act.
A major argument in favour of the death penalty is the search for justice and retribution, suggesting that the criminal should pay for the crime they have committed and suffer in a similar but equal way. The conservative perspective also accepts the death penalty as a measure to stop re-offending and to remove the individual from the ‘system’ reducing long term costs and future issues like parole.
It can also be considered that the threat of Capital Punishment can be an incentive for helping the police, with the defendant assisting the investigation or giving evidence in another trial for a commuted sentence to life imprisonment. However some argue that the action of plea bargaining is similar to emotional torture in the sense that it is threatening the defendants life for information and is a violation of their human rights. This argument continues in a somewhat unjustified sense that a criminal condemned to the death suffers far worse than any crime they committed, for example in Japan the condemned are not given a date for their execution. Instead they are given a week to live and if they are still in their cell by the weekend they have another week. This could be considered cruel and unusual however generally the sympathies here lie solely with the people affected by the criminal acts and not by the emotions of the murderer, child molester or rapist.
The pro argument is opposed by the UN’s aim to abolish Capital Punishment. This is supported by Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “Everybody has the right to life...” The counter argument also suggests that the sanctity of life is far greater than any actions committed regardless of how heinous and evil they are. The BBC’s Ethics Guide suggests that
“...retribution is used in a unique way in the case of the death penalty. Crimes other than murder do not receive a punishment that mimics the crime - for example rapists are not punished by sexual assault and people guilty of assault are not ceremonially beaten up.” This implies that the death penalty is heavy punishment and may be pursued out of vengeance rather than rectification, a notion backed by the US Catholic Conference which was quoted as saying “We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing.”
Supporters would like to justify the use of the death penalty as a form of consolation or to gain a degree of closure for the families involved while others would argue that killing someone will not undo the acts that they have performed and therefore it is unnecessary to take their life as it would brutalize society.
Another aspect of the debate is whether Capital Punishment acts as a suitable deterrent to prevent an increase in crime. It stands to reason that the death penalty would serve as a stern warning to would-be murderers, giving clear and unpleasant consequences to one’s actions; however this can’t always be justified as it has been argued that in some instances the person involved can be in such an emotional or mental state that they don’t consider the outcome before acting. Therefore the idea of deterrence can only be to discourage premeditated crime but cannot be used to deter crime entirely.
So far I have only skimmed across the religious perspective that is usually associated with this heavy topic, and there is just cause for this. Although most denominations of religion are very quotable and have direct and indirect perspectives on this issue, numerous academics have highlighted that there are contradictions and hypocrisies within the religions’ own teachings and different rationalizations of the chosen text. The most common example of this is from the Bible in Exodus 21:24 which states “eye for (an) eye”, which has been scrutinized in and out of context. This leaves the argument too complex to analyze in a blog, but may be better suited to a multiple volume text of human history.
The competency of the judicial system and its possible flaws are also an important aspect to the debate. For example in the USA, jurors presiding over a Capital Punishment case must be ‘death eligible’, meaning that they must be willing to convict the defendant even though the sentence could be death. This leads to a bias in the system as those who conscientiously object to the death penalty would not make themselves ‘death eligible’ and would not be on the jury, whilst people who are eligible would have less objections to the punishment. These flaws are further highlighted by the statistics associated with US legal aid, suggesting that the US judicial system does not provide poor defendants with adequate legal representation. They suggest that of all the defendants sentenced to death who receive legal aid, three quarters will be executed, a figure which drops to as little as a quarter if they can afford to pay for a lawyer. This clearly shows a major systematic flaw proving that even the most celebrated judicial structures can hold bias based on influence, class, money or racial prejudice.
The troublesome viewpoint of this issue comes into effect when a state gets it wrong and unjustifiably condemns a person to death. For instance the case of Cameron Todd Willingham of Huntsville, Texas, who was found guilty and sentenced to death for the arson of his home killing his three small children in 1991. In the time between being found guilty and the date of execution there was overwhelming evidence and testimony to suggest that it was an accident. Still this man, who had lost his children, spent over a decade in prison and refused to resort to plea bargaining for his life, citing his innocence was executed by lethal injection in 2004. Whether Willingham was innocent or not, there was a strong counter argument against his conviction supported by reliable witnesses and enough incriminating evidence to get a retrial, but this was still this was overlooked. This begs the question how in this modern age can it be considered acceptable to execute first and ask questions later?
This leads me back to the argument that there is a lack of state regulation and control. It is a realistic concern that if a mix between rogue, unsanctioned or non-transparent states, like China, continue to execute without sufficient evidence or what we would consider to be just cause, we could be looking at a bleak future, and scenes that may be more associated with George Orwell’s novel 1984. A recent story in China emphasizes the unjust application of the death penalty and the lack of state regulation. A decade ago, Zhao Zuohai was imprisoned for the murder of his neighbour after they had been seen fighting and the neighbour went missing. Shortly after a headless decomposed body was found and Zuohai arrested. He was initially sentenced to death for the crime, but fortunately it was commuted to 29-year prison sentence. In May 2010 the missing neighbour appeared in Zuohai’s home town to claim benefits much to the shock of local town’s people. It later transpired that Zuohai had been subjected to beatings and had had fireworks set off by his head until he provided sufficient evidence to be convicted. He lost his wife, most of his children were adopted and he also had to endure prison. If the original sentence had been enforced this man would have been unjustly executed due to the state’s motivation for a confession, albeit it a false one. This demonstrates that there are many flaws to judicial systems and shows that with a lack of control and regulation the death penalty can be used as a tool of oppression.
Quite simply the ‘death penalty’ is a barbaric, outdated punishment and deterrent that gives the state too much control over life with a lack of regulation and respect for human life. Time served with no chance of parole as a punishment, although potentially difficult for the victim’s family to accept, will ensure that falsely convicted people do not die as a result of inaccuracies, misleading evidence and bias in the judicial systems, especially in terms of crime matching sentence. I feel that pro death supporters are looking for revenge for the victim’s rights, which can be understood if not condoned, but in doing so it would infringe upon the offenders basic rights to life. I am not saying they need to be ‘mollycoddled’ but as a morale argument it cannot be justified to kill another for closure. It is also too difficult to define what crimes warrant a death sentence, which is why if all crimes carry prison terms it will echo international unity, especially on controversial executions like homosexuality and adultery and end a catalogue of systemic flaws. In short I believe the application of the death penalty is too imperfect to work in modern society and should be abolished or, as this is very unlikely to happen, it should be heavily regulated by an International body.