Capital punishment. As one imagines the declaration of such a grave and weighty sentence, one can see the magistrate, his face stony and implacable, declaring his decision. Countless lives hang in the balance. But inside the workings of a magistrate’s mind, a whirlpool of emotions swirls about. One can see him break the nib of his pen, this symbolic act, a release of all encumbrances, after he pens down the death warrant of a vicious criminal. The Justice subjects himself to the anguish of snatching away life, a gift not his to take and his decision tantamount to murder. A verdict given to secure the safety of society.
The Death Penalty: an effective deterrent?
Advocates of capital punishment have strongly argued for the potency of capital punishment as an efficient deterrent. What is deterrence? Deterrence is the methodology in which the threat or fear can deter an individual from taking a particular course of action. Proponents for the death penalty fervently believe that the grave consequences of horrendous crimes can dissuade crime.
Why is the threat of death not enough to deter crime?
Rationality seldom has any place in the mind of the mean criminal. Mental health, substance abuse and trauma vanquish all rational thoughts and instincts and the venomous urge to murder consumes an individual. Crimes committed in a moment of fiery passion, destructive rage, depression or substance abuse under no circumstance are prevented by the fear of death.
The psychology of a delinquent malefactor is fascinating indeed. Amongst the multitude of personalities found amongst the criminal class, the narcissist constitutes the most perilous precariousness. The narcissist is devoid of empathy and all coherent thinking. His credence in his superlative puissance sees the death sentence as a riveting challenge to skirmish by means of his insanely exquisite blueprints.
Isaac Ehrlich’s 1975 American Economic Review paper analyses homicides and executions of the United States from 1933-1969. Each execution yielded 8 fewer homicides. This result was somewhat puzzling in light of the fact that an 80 percent drop in the execution rate from the late 1930s until 1960 had been accompanied by falling murder rates. A subsequent re-analysis by Peter Passell and John Taylor showed that Ehrlich’s estimates were entirely driven by attributing a sharp jump in murders from 1963-69 to the post-1962 drop in executions. But the mid-1960s decline in homicide occurred across all states—including those that had never had the death penalty!
Au contraire,the rise of the implementation of capital punishment brutalises society. The population is demoralised by such drastic measures sanctioned by the state itself. Morale is crushed as people lose confidence in the governing body and become alarmingly violent. Because, after all, who really gave them the power to take a life and rule it moral?
In India, a serious question is posed before the magistrate: Is it prudent to let a convict back into society? Life imprisonment is an abstract concept in India as in almost every case, prisoners are released after an imprisonment period of twenty years. The expenditure of housing and feeding criminals for a lifetime is far too much for the state to bear. Inevitably, after a certain period, criminals are at liberty to start off on a clean slate. Or rather they put their deranged ideas into execution. A resumption of their barbaric and gruesome activities endangers the security and the defence of the realm. Internal forces threaten to rip apart the harmonious disposition of society.
Enthusiasts who champion capital punishment may look to capital punishment as an efficacious mechanism to clamp down on malfeasance in a cost-effective manner. Nevertheless, it is astounding to comprehend the mammothian expenses of the endless litigation that is entirely superfluous. A further chasm is carved out between the moneyed classes and the quotidian proletarian by the practice of capital punishment.
Capital Punishment: A chasm between the classes?
The inherent differences between the economic situation of the various strata of society render it injustice to dole out capital punishment. The haves are well equipped to wriggle out of disagreeable situations by means of adept legal aces. The UN rights experts warn of the detrimental effects of capital punishment on the poor and marginalised. Such individuals are sitting ducks for the police force as their low standing in society generates unfavourable public opinion. Society's firm conviction in the 'image' of a criminal: a grubby little person, with unkempt hair, an appalling vocabulary; aid in making the lot of the everyday man very sad indeed. One can quite easily see a criminal resembling the odious Fagin but nay, one can never see an Alec d'Urberville in the docks!
The penniless cannot afford the crippling costs of legal assistance and must rely solely on the free legal assistance provided by the state, which may be of low quality. The procuration of valuable evidence, tracing witnesses and access to appeals is far,far beyond their means. Alas, the acquisition of bail is a utopian, pie- in-the-sky fantasy for the pauperized.
Migrants are also subject to anguish and face much opposition. The judiciary, police force, investigators and the general population regard immigrants with contempt and disdain. Such spiteful and petty opinions influence the verdict adversely. Migrants who are entangled in the intricate fibres of the legal system, face innumerable obstacles such as: unfamiliarity with legal procedures, ignorance of their fundamental rights, financial demarcation and antagonistic public opinion.
Capital Punishment: Overtly Tyrannical?
Islamic states are infamous for their harsh and remorseless implementation of the guillotine as appropriate punishment. Sharia Law condemns apostasy from Islam, murder, rape, adultery and homosexuality, witchcraft and publishing pornography.
There is some justification for inflicting the death penalty on callous murderers and rapists; however, it is abhorrent that apostasy from Islam, adultery and homosexuality be deemed offences! The free will to embrace a particular religious school or renounce religion altogether must be contingent on the choice of an individual. One cannot repress one's sexual identity and to do so, would be destructive. The domination of the individual choices by the government is a recipe for totalitarianism and disaster.
Whilst Islam remains firmly retentionist, there is a small but growing abolitionist Islamic view. Their argument is:
1)The Ulamas,(the scholars of Islamic Law, constitution and theology), do not always agree on the interpretation or the authenticity of the sacred texts. Neither do they agree on the social context in which these texts should be applied.
2)Sharia law is often used by repressive and orthodox powers that suppress women and the impoverished.
3)There are incidents of states summarily executing those who are accused whilst denying them access to a lawyer. These acts are totally contradictory to the concept of Islamic justice.
Death penalty: A tool for power?
The death penalty is the penultimate damnation,a fate destined for some of the most brutal villainy and monstrosity ever witnessed in the course of human history. Lamentably, capital punishment is manoeuvred ruthlessly to achieve domination and suppression of the masses. 2021 was a particularly disturbing year for executions as countries unleashed this potent weapon on minorities, protestors and other political enemies. The military takeover in Myanmar snatched away the right to appeal and tribunals occurred without opposition. Ninety people were sentenced in Myanmar, the 'condemned' consisted solely of journalists and protestors. It is crystal clear that governments do not prioritise justice, rather,they define 'tolerable actions' and the 'appropriate punishment' for defiance.
Death penalty: An irreversible sentence
The death penalty certainly has its crosses to bear. Hauntingly fallacious, it has consumed more innocent lives than guilty.
In 2000, Professor James Liebman of Columbia Law School examined every capital conviction and appeal between 1973-1995. His results found high error rates across the country. More than 90% of the states that had given death sentences had overall error rates of 52% or higher. 85% of states had error rates of 60% or higher! Perjury, false confessions, inadequate legal defence ,deficiency of evidence and misconduct are some of the factors that lead to a conviction or an exoneration. Is it in the nation's interest to place the puissance of capital punishment in the hands of such a flawed judicial system?
Capital punishment could involve delays and laches of several years, sometimes decades. Yakub Memon, an accountant convicted of terrorism over his involvement in the 1993 Bombay attacks, was executed twenty-two years after the horrendous occurrences. The culprits of the ghastly and sickening Nirbhaya case were sentenced to death in 2020, eight years after the victim was savagely attacked and murdered. Rather than engage in judicial proceedings of the draconian capital punishment which could delay the meting out of justice, it is more prudent to employ a more fitting and humane modus operandi.
The endless complications, the lengthy procedures and the irreversibility of capital punishment expose all the hindrances of capital punishment. The thought of an innocent man a victim of the hangman noose is frightening indeed. As the English jurist William Blackstone famously said,
"Let a hundred guilty be acquitted but one innocent should not be convicted."