Is Capital Punishment Justified? A Holistic Perspective

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The last 6 months witnessed capital punishment being awarded to two terrorists – Ajmal Kasab and Afzal Guru. This has given rise to a lot of debates regarding the plausibility and humaneness of the verdict. Is offering the noose the best way to teach someone a lesson? How can lesson be learnt after death? This makes capital punishment more of a way of teaching the society a lesson rather than the criminal himself. Isn’t it a better option to rehabilitate the criminal instead for killing him? Debolena Bose addresses this question and more in this blog.

Burn at stake, guillotine, hang, electrocute, lethal injections, gas chamber. One term which related all of them is capital punishment. “Capital punishment is the execution of a person by the state as punishment for a crime.” Over the ages, these are the various forms of death penalty or capital punishment given to criminals. But there are some basic differences between the death sentence given in the modern days and a few centuries ago.

Crimes that result in death penalty are called capital crimes or capital offences. History shows that the crimes to which the death penalty has been awarded often seem unjust, unfair and to some extent, frivolous. Kings have been known to award this punishment in a capricious manner. But the times have improved. Criminal cases are tried till the last shred of evidence is dissected and decisions are reached only after deep consideration of the matter. Therefore, I can safely vouch that capital punishment, today, is given after a lot of thought and with discretion.

However, it is a misconception or one can say, a partial view that medieval kings arbitrarily gave death sentence for petty crimes, such as, cutting down trees or stealing animals. The Old Testament lays down that there should be a death penalty for murder, abduction, magic violation of Sabbath, blasphemy and a wide range of sexual crimes. Even in the Ancient Greeks’s Athenian legal system, death sentence was accepted. This was first written by Draco in about 621 B.C. But we need to look at contemporary times.

Death sentence as a punishment has been subject to controversies since long. The basic reason is the moral and humanitarian questions attached to it. For this, one needs to understand the death sentence by itself. In most countries, capital punishment is a method of suppressing crimes and political dissent. It is given as a punishment for premeditated murder, espionage, treason, or as part of military justice. In some countries, even sexual crimes, such as, rape, sodomy and adultery and drug-trafficking carry a death penalty. In China, human trafficking is also regarded as capital offence.

The question that is constantly debated upon is that when should capital punishment be awarded to a person. What sort of crime or offence would demand a capital punishment? When someone commits a heinous crime against another being, such as, a person who has raped an eight month pregnant woman then murdered her? An abominable thief? Or should a serial killer with no conscience be incriminated? Some would say that life imprisonment is an easy way out and it would also give chance to reform the criminal. But I doubt the objectivity of this belief.

Some case histories of the capital punishment relate obnoxious incidents of incorrigible criminals, who continue their offences even after they are let out on parole. One such incident is about Robert Massie, who murdered a woman after robbing her house in 1965. Massie was imprisoned and hours before execution, a stay was issued so Massie could testify against his accomplice. Massie’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the Supreme Court. Massie was paroled but eight months later, he robbed and murdered businessman, Boris Naumoff in San Francisco.

There is a huge uproar everywhere against capital punishment and death sentence, saying it is immoral and that it infringes the inalienable Right to Life of an individual. In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is a pledge among nations to promote fundamental rights as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

Article 3 of the Declaration states that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. A group of reformers, known as the Abolitionists interpreted the death penalty along these terms and reached to the conclusion that the death penalty is a violation of human right since it deprives a person of his right to live. If such reasoning is followed, then the State should abolish prisons since it violates a person’s right to liberty.

Article 5 of the Declaration states that no one shall be subjected to cruel and degrading punishment.Abolitionists insist that the capital punishment should be ruled out because it is the ‘ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment’. But one noticeable aspect that the Abolitionists and most people miss out is the fact of justice for the victim. In the fight for justice and human rights of the criminals, one generally forgets about the victim’s right to justice. What about the psyche of the victim who has been wronged? If the criminal has a right to live respectfully then the victim, too, has the same right. In my opinion, the person who has infringed another’s right to live peacefully and respectfully should be meted out with similar treatment.

There are numerous arguments put forward against death sentence. The classic one is that society cannot show that killing is wrong by killing. This viewpoint was maintained by a Cleveland judge, Daniel Gaul — “Why do we kill people who kill people to prove that it’s wrong to kill people?” He furthers his argument by talking about community’s souls and the sanctity of life. In my opinion, it is the death penalty which affirms the sanctity of life—the innocent’s life. In our zeal to protect the rights of criminals, we should not minimize the rights of their victims. An innocent’s life should be valued over the offender’s.

Another argument generally put forward is that the death sentence does not deter crime. Recent studies have proved that, for each inmate put to death, three to eighteen murders have been prevented. According to these reports, the effect is most pronounced in Texas and other states that execute condemned criminals relatively often and quickly. Studies performed by economists in the previous decade prove that the murder rates tend to fall as the executions rise. H.NaciMocan, an economist at Louisiana State University said, “I personally am opposed to the death penalty. But my research shows that there is a deterrent effect.”

We should also keep in mind the fact that till date majority of the death sentence was given for high profile murders and treasonable acts. If it were given to people who have a criminal mind and who will never stop criminal activities, maybe we could hope for some positive change in the society. Another typical argument says that we should value human life, even the most despicable ones. While accepting such views we should logically chalk out our priorities. Whose lives should we value more? Valuing the lives of despicable ones would lead to the violation of right of the innocent and the good. Moreover, being human on a spiritual level, means having compassion and respect for all that is good and decent. Murderers display no such qualities and tolerating such people is itself an act against humanity.

The most commonplace argument of all is that executing a murderer will not bring the victim back. Justice is not about bringing back the dead. It is about enforcing consequences of one’s own action. It is about preventing future misfortune and protecting the life of the vulnerable and about arming the weak. Some people stress on the barbaric nature of the death penalty as a reason for its abolition, forgetting that the acts committed by the people sentenced is not exactly humane. Moreover, I feel that the death sentence is more humane and easy to undergo than life imprisonment since it ends the torture of the criminal within minutes as opposed to the torture he would undergo in prisons.

The death sentence is not given for every crime. The list includes murder, treason, terrorism and repeated aggravated assaults. During a war threat, death penalty is given for treason that would mean loss of life. Acts of terrorism cause people to be injured or killed and, therefore, is awarded the death sentence. Death sentenced is also imposed on a person who has been convicted of aggravated assaults, manslaughter or brutal rape. And also to one who has served a punishment and after that is convicted of aggravated assaults again.

It should be kept in mind that in a country like India the number of death penalty is very few. NathuramGodse was given the death penalty for assassinating Mahatma Gandhi. Kehar Singh was given the death penalty for being part of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. DhananjoyChatterjee was given the same sentence for raping and then murdering a school girl. In other countries, like the United States, death sentences are awarded more frequently.

“All grandeur, all power, all subordination to authority rests on the executioner….Remove this incomprehensible agent from the world and order gives way to chaos, thrones topple and society disappears”, said Joseph de Maistre, an eighteenth century French diplomat. I think the death sentence should be retained and should be awarded (with great discretion and after proper research) to the irrevocable criminal minds.

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