The ‘Death Penalty’ is it right or wrong? This one question raises so many others : What is the purpose of punishment? What is the right of the state to enforce such a severe penalty on an individual? What happens when the state gets it wrong? Who will carry the consequences of a mistake of such colossal magnitude? And for me the most crucial question of all : what gives anyone the right – be it government, state or individual – to take the life of another human being?
The purpose of the death penalty, or so we are repeatedly told by those states and countries that enforce it, is to punish individuals for crimes so heinous that the only comparable punishment is death. They tell us that this penalty will also serve as a deterrent to others, and the punishment will be equal to the gravity of the crime. I know there are horrendous crimes that come to mind, despicable crimes against children, shocking acts of violence against innocent victims, random acts of extreme brutality, that defy logic, reasoning, and the values of civilized humanity. But then ask yourself this, how can any ‘civilized’ society punish a person for such an act of violence by then carrying out another? What is civilized about the organized systematic preparation for the death of a human being by a government or state organization? I cannot intellectually or emotionally comprehend the ‘civilized’ manner in which human beings are told that their life will be taken away; they are then prepared for death, given a date when they will be killed, and on the final fateful day, they systematically, ‘logically’ and ‘reasonably’ have their life extinguished.
A lot of the states and countries that utilise the death penalty claim that they are religious. America, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan all use the death penalty; but the Ten Commandments which Christianity, Islam and Judaism all abide by, implores the faithful followers of these religions to adhere to the fundamental rule that “Thou shalt not kill” .
There is nothing holy or ‘Godly’ in watching a man or women kneeling on the dusty grounds of an Afghan football stadium, while he or she is stoned to death in the presence of their fellow human beings. This is ‘punishment’ for breaking some ancient moral code of fidelity, or interpretation of adultery, or being in love with someone of the same gender.
There is nothing sacred in asking the family of a murder victim who have lost a loved one, to then come and watch the death of the person who has been tried and convicted of the crime. As the government or state, in one of the most developed and sophisticated countries in the world, the USA, then organises a death for you to watch as a means of appeasement. A death which is administered by the injection of poisonous substances into the flesh of fellow human being; or a death by the application of thousands of volts of electricity, into the body of a person whose traumatized flesh will burn and smoke, as they violently twitch and shudder, as life is dragged out of their being.
There was nothing civilized in the manner in which even a notorious dictator such as Saddam Hussein was dragged to the gallows. His execution was filmed on a multitude of mobile phones and broadcast on youtube for the world to savour.
Where is the sanctity of life that God has granted humanity in those moments? Whether it be hanging, firing squad, electric chair, poisonous gas, lethal injection stoning or guillotine, none of these acts of ‘punishment’ can or should be accepted and tolerated by civilized human beings. There is no humanity or benevolence in the revenge of one death by the orchestrated spectacle of another.
The message that society sends out to its members in those moments is that violence will be punished with more violence, through a “pre-mediated organised death” . This has become known as the “brutalization effect”. This theory tells us that the death penalty will have a “brutalizing or coarsening effect either upon society or those …involved in a criminal justice system which imposes it”.
In a study by Bowers and Pierce in New York State between 1907-1963, it was claimed that in the months following an execution there was a “definite increase in homicides”. One of the fundamental arguments favoured by proponents of the death penalty is that it is a deterrent, this is not what the “brutalization effect” tells us; instead it shows us that we are becoming less humane and more brutal. We are in effect losing our right to humanity by taking away the right to life of our fellow humans.
One of the most frightening factors in considering the death penalty is the propensity for judicial systems around the world to make mistakes. Innocent people are, and will always be convicted of crimes they have not committed. Statistically this is inevitable. When the death penalty is enforced by the state or government there is a chance that they too are murdering an innocent victim. In the US it was proven that “between 1973 and 2005, 123 people in 25 states were released from death row when new evidence of their innocence emerged” . It is even more unsettling when you take into account factors such as education, social class and race for those who have been condemned to the death penalty. In the US it African-Americans “made up 41 percent of death row inmates and 34 percent of those actually executed since 1976”.
There is no recourse for the families of these victims of miscarriages of justice, the pain is even more devastating because there has often been a long judicial and legal process to endure. Hopes and doubts arise and then fall, that your loved one will be released and returned to you; that freedom will come, that justice will reign, and the truth will prevail,.
It is more likely that the figures for innocent people being executed are even higher than those suggested; as once a person has been executed there is little will, financial aid or impetus in proving that the miscarriage of justice has occurred. What is the point? The person you love has been killed and you have had to stand by and watch helplessly as the might and power of the state has mercilessly organized their death before your eyes.
In the UK there have been many miscarriages of justice where the legal system has eventually exposed mistakes, corruption or carelessness. When the Birmingham Six were released by the Court of Appeal in 1989 it was a triumphant, rare victory for justice. These six men had spent years imprisoned for the violent bombing of a Birmingham pub, a crime it was later proven that they had never committed. At their original trial in 1975, the presiding Judge had “expressed regret that capital punishment was no longer an option for him to pass” in judgment.
Other prisoners who had for many years pleaded and vehemently argued their innocence were to follow in their pursuit of freedom over the next eleven years. Cases such as Guildford Four, Danny McNamee, and the Bridgewater Four, are all humbling examples of how fallible even the most civilized and comprehensive legal system can be in convicting and condemning the innocent. Thankfully in these cases there was no death penalty for these individuals to have to face; their lives were damaged by the years taken away by the state.
Imagine the pain, loss and trauma of a few years earlier when the British government had exercised the right to impose the death penalty, and in effect murdered the innocent. Consider the helplessness, pain and unjustifiable futility of losing someone to the might and power of the state. This is exactly what happened in the cases of Derek Bentley and Timothy Evans. These cases have been reopened many many years after the original convictions: names have been cleared, and posthumous pardons granted, but the individuals concerned are still dead.
There is no reason or justification for the death penalty in any sphere of society or civilization. As human beings we must not cater to the basest emotions of revenge or vengeance. We are more sophisticated, more intelligent, more humane than that. We must strive to be more compassionate, more benevolent and more human. We must each and every one of us aim to live in a future, where the death penalty makes us shudder with fear and trepidation of a world where the systematic, ritualistic and organized death of a human being was ever allowed. That death was a legal punishment for any of our fellow humans. We cannot deny the most basic human right, the right to life, to any citizen of the world, no matter what the crime. There is no right, justification, or cause for the death penalty to ever be applied as a form of punishment by any man or woman, on another. Let us echo the words of Clive Stafford-Smith who has fought tirelessly for years for those facing the death penalty, and the abolition of capital punishment, when he says “There's no doubt that death row will be abolished and I know I'll see it in my lifetime".