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The Death Penalty: Playing God? Essay

The death sentence strikes at the core of human sensitivity and sensibility. The world is divided into almost two equal camps – one passionately in support and the other equally passionately against this extreme measure of censure in human history. Forty-seven percent Americans support the death penalty, while 48% would rather prefer life without payrole (Death Penalty Information Centre, 2007).

Both the camps present practical, logical and convincing arguments favoring their stand. Those who are against the death penalty believe that this extreme measure has minimum deterrent effect, violates the most fundamental of human rights, i.e. the right to life, is completely out of sync with civilized society and should be abolished outright and forthwith. Those who support the death penalty, on the other hand, do so because they hold that it acts as a major deterrent to heinous crimes, crimes committed by criminals who, according to them, not only do not deserve a place in society, but also lose the right to life. They have to die so that any chance of them repeating their crime and adding others to their list of victims is eliminated forever. The state, it is reasoned, takes the life to accord protection to future victims of the convicted.

An objective analysis of the arguments for and against the death penalty however can only lead to the inevitable conclusion that the death penalty has no place in civilized society. Two very undeniable and universal facts override all arguments in support of the death penalty: the fundamental human right to life along with all its critical implications to the individual and to society, and the irrevocability and finality of the death sentence that takes away all probability of redemption or reconsideration at the face of the human nature to err.

Death Penalty is not a Deterrent Those who support the death penalty do so on the basis of the belief that it acts as a strong deterrent to crimes similar to those committed by the condemned. The facts and figures, however, tell a different story. In the United States, the south accounts for 80% of the total executions, yet it has the highest murder rate. However, the northeast, which has less than 1% of all executions, also has the lowest murder rate (Death Penalty Information Centre).

The figures lend themselves to very straight forward interpretations: either the death penalty is failing miserably to act as a deterrent in the south or it has to be accepted that the citizenry of the south is inherently more murderous in nature or is simply more susceptible to murder. There are other figures that corroborate the fact that the death penalty does not actually result in a decrease in murder rates. In Canada, the death penalty was abolished in 1976. The homicide rate in the country started declining since 1975, and in 1999 the homicide rate was the lowest since 1967.

An analysis by the New York Times in 2000 found that the homicide rates in the US states with the death penalty have been 48% to 101% higher than in states without the death penalty (John Howard Society of Ontario, 2001). An overwhelming 84% of the top criminologists of the United States have rejected the notion that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder (Radelet & Akers). The Amnesty International has also failed to find conclusive evidence that the death penalty has any unique capacity to deter others from committing similar crimes.

In its survey of research findings on the relation between the death penalty and homicide rates conducted in 1998 and updated in 2002, it concluded that it was “not prudent to accept the hypothesis that capital punishment deters murder to a marginally greater extent than does the threat and application of the supposedly lesser punishment of life imprisonment. ” (Hood, 2002, pp. 230) If deterrence implies that the condemned is rendered unable to repeat the crime and claim more victim, then it will also have to imply that the condemned would have repeated the crime if allowed to escape the death penalty.

That can however be an assumption and an assumption only. And even if we assume that the condemned person would have indeed tried to repeat the crime, it would be possible only if the person is allowed the liberty and the opportunity to do so. Life imprisonment without parole would be a preferred alternative to the death penalty in such a case. Critics would however be quick to point out the financial implications of life imprisonment. Irreversibility of the Death Penalty The intrinsic weakness of the death penalty as a justifiable measure lies in the fact that it is irreversible and irrevocable.

Numerous examples bear testimony to the fact that even the highest judicial system of any country can make mistakes, that innocent persons have been dealt the death penalty time and again, that persons on the death row had been granted last minute reprieve when their innocence had been proved. Studies reveal that more than 200 people have been wrongfully convicted of serious crimes such as murder and rape in California alone since 1989 (Martin). In the United States 123 persons have been exonerated and released from death row since 1973 (Death Penalty Information Center, 2006).

A 1980s study in the United States identified 353 cases since the turn of the century of wrongful convictions for offences punishable by death and 25 innocent persons were actually executed (John Howard Society of Ontario, 2001). The death penalty leaves no scope for errors in judgment. If a person is found to be innocent after the sentence has been carried out, there is no way in which the wrong can be undone. Unlike in other cases, the option for compensation for a wrong done is also completely ruled out in the case of the death penalty.

A Cost too high In practice, however, numerous studies have found that the cost of implementing a death penalty is much higher than the cost of maintaining a prisoner for life. There are many reasons why the death penalty is more expensive than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (Capital Punishment Project, 2003): i. A much higher percentage of cases go to trial in case of death penalties. ii. Murder trials generally take longer when the death penalty is at issue. A capital murder trial lasts over 3.5 time longer than non-capital murder trials (Cook & Slawson).

Certain constitutional safeguards have to be taken in the case of death penalty trials leading to greater time requirement. The Jury selection procedure is also more complex and tedious and takes more time. iii. Death penalty trials require more intense pretrial preparations and more elaborate proceedings. The sentencing phase almost amounts to a second trial. All litigation costs, more often than not, have to be borne by the tax payer.

It is therefore amply clear the life imprisonment without parole is a comparatively cheaper and equally effective alternative to the death penalty, but imposed the same degree of incapacitation on the condemned on the individual level. Human Rights Infringement The most damning case against the death penalty is that it is an infringement on the most fundamental of all human rights – the right to life. A death penalty is imposed in the name of the state. But does the state actually have the right to deprive a person of his or her life? It could be a dangerous proposition even to believe so.

Hitler’s Germany believed in the absolute right of the state. The consequences mark a very dark period in the history of humankind. Are we tempting fate again by according the state the right to impose and execute the death penalty? In the December 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, nations of the world came together to ensure the fundamental rights of every person. These human rights were not subject to the will of the state, but were declared to be inherent in every human being. It was not the state’s prerogative to grant or withdraw the human rights.

The fundamental human rights therefore put limitations on what a state may do to a person. The Universal declaration recognizes each person’s right to life. The death penalty is therefore a fragrant violation of human rights. Human rights preserve the dignity of the individual. There can be no justification inhuman and cruel treatment and punishment that degrades the essence of humanity. The death penalty inflicts the most severe kind of mental and physical torture not only on the condemned, but also on al those who are related to the condemned. Every member of the society also has to own responsibility as a constituent unit of the state.

The Principle of lex talionis Proponents of the death penalty attempt to justify their stand on the principle of lex talionis or ‘eye-for-an-eye’ which advocates that violence must in some measure be answered by violence or that the punishment should fit the crime. They believe that such retribution serves justice to murder victims and their survivors. Just as the individual do not have the right to kill, society also should not be empowered to kill. The retribution theory would dictate that the rapist be raped and the house of the arsonist be set on fire. Such a policy would go against the basic tenets of justice.

If violence can be justified by violence than it follows that every act of violence whether perpetuated by the state or the individual would be justifiable on some ground or the other. Retribution in kind would bring the state down to the level of the criminal. There would then be no distinction between the dispenser of the law and the one who violates it. Misuse of the Death Penalty Misuse of the death penalty is another reason that calls for its abolition. In the political context, the death penalty has often been used to eliminate opponents and suppress popular uprisings.

Here, the question of fairness in making the judgment becomes a very subjective one. What is punishable by death for one political regime could very well be deemed a heroic act of valor for another. The labeling of the act therefore depends very much on the actors and the circumstances and the environment in which they operate. That is the reason why people who are executed are often subsequently turned into martyrs. It happened in Hitler’s Germany, in India and in South Africa. It is happening in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Serbia and in many other places wherever two groups of people look at the world with conflicting perspectives.

Take the example of Saddam Hussien. Richard Dicker’s, director of Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program, was a rational voice when he said , “Saddam Hussein was responsible for massive human rights violations, but that can’t justify giving him the death penalty, which is a cruel and inhuman punishment. ” (Human Rights Watch, 2006) A November 2006 report by Human Rights Watch pointed out numerous serious flaws in the trial of Saddam Hussein. Among other defects, the report found that Iraqi government actions had all along undermined the Iraqi High Tribunal and threatened its independence and perceived impartiality.

Handing Saddam Hussein the death penalty has been viewed by a large section of the world as a measure made necessary by the prevailing political and military situation rather than a quest for justice. There is also a very strong view in the United States that the application of the death sentence is racially discriminatory. Studies have been conducted to examine the relationship between race and death penalty in all the states that where the death penalty is still active.

The Capital Punishment Project (2007) reports that 96% studies found a pattern of either race-of-victim or race-of-defendant discrimination. Of those executed since 1976, approximately 35% have been black, even though blacks constitute only 12% of the population. It has been found that the odds of receiving a death sentence are almost four times higher if the defendant is black. The Amnesty International (2003) has also asserted that races does have an impact on capital punishment, and that the judicial system of the United States have been able to do precious little about it.

Amnesty International has attributed this failure of the courts and legislatures of the USA to act decisively at the face of evidence that race has an impact on the death sentence to a collective ‘blind faith’ that America will never waver on the ‘non-negotiable’ demands of human dignity including ‘equal justice. ’ The Larger World View The good news is that the world at large is coming together to prove that the death penalty is an unacceptable proposition. The United Nations has declared itself in favour of abolition. Two-thirds of the countries of the world have now abolished the death penalty in law or in practice.

In the United States itself, 13 states are now without the death penalty. The latest information from Amnesty International shows that: i. Ninety countries and territories have abolished the death penalty for all crimes; ii. 11 countries have abolished the death penalty for all but exceptional crimes such as wartime crimes; iii. 30 countries can be considered abolitionist in practice: they retain the death penalty in law but have not carried out any executions for the past 10 years or more and are believed to have a policy or established practice of not carrying out executions, iv. a total of 131 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice, v. Sixty-six other countries and territories retain and use the death penalty, but the number of countries which actually execute prisoners in any one year is much smaller. The debate over capital punishment has raged on long enough.

The world is finally showing the door to the death penalty. In doing so, it is stating in no uncertain terms that the sanctity of life of a fellow human being is above the purview of all man-made laws. That only the giver of life has the right to take it back.

References Amnesty International, 2003, United States of America, Death by discrimination – the continuing role of race in capital cases,. Library, Online Documentation Archive. [Online] Available. <http://web. amnesty. org/library/index/engamr510462003 > [February 28, 2008] Capital Punishment Project, 2007, Race and the Death Penalty, American Civil Liberties Union, [Online] Available < http://www. aclu. org/death-penalty > [February 28, 2008] Capital Punishment Project, 2003, The High Costs of the Death Penalty. American Civil Liberties Union.

Death Penalty Information Center, 2006, Innocence and the Death Penalty, [Online] Available <http://www. deathpenaltyinfo. org/article. php? did=412&scid=6> [February 28, 2008] Death Penalty Information Centre, 2007, Facts about the Death Penalty, [Online] Available < http://www. deathpenaltyinfo. org/FactSheet. pdf > [February 28, 2008] Hood, R. , 2002, The Death Penalty: A World-wide Perspective,. Oxford, Clarendon Press, third edition. Human Rights Watch, 2006, Iraq: Saddam Hussein put to Death. Hanging after flawed trial undermines the rule of law. Human Rights News.

[Online] Available < http://hrw. org/english/docs/2006/12/30/iraq14950. htm > [February 28, 2008] John Howard Society of Ontario, 2001, The Death Penalty: Any Nation’s Shame, John Howard Society of Ontario publication. [Online] Available < www. johnhowardphd. ca/PDFs/Fact%20Sheets/death%20penalty. pdf > [February 28, 2008] Cook, P. , J. , & Slawson, D. , B. , 1993, The Costs of Prosecuting Murder Cases in North Carolina.


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