Relevance of Capital Punishment in the 21st Century


“I believe that more people would be alive today if there were a death penalty.” ― Nancy Reagan

In the depths of present day Iraq stood an 8 foot tall monolith. A stone stele, dating back to 1772 BC. This massive rock changed the way  history played itself out, for held in its folds one of the world’s oldest legal documents, put forth by the sixth King of Babylonia, Hammurabi. It held on its surface, carvings that came to be known as the Code of Hammurabi; this was a legal document which contained the first known death penalty laws.

Guillotines, electric chairs, and a long rope that hangs from the ceiling all paint grim images in our minds. This picture  raises a number of questions, ethical and otherwise, and like most questions that raise complicated answers, here too we face a dilemma. If there are people who are in favour of capital punishment, there exist just as many who also those who want it to be abolished.

Capital punishment is still extant in a number of countries around the world. Amnesty International notes as of May 2012, 141 countries have abolished the death penalty either in law on in practice.

In the given case, we have two sections of society – those for and those against. The proponents for capital punishment have a plethora of reasons to support their stance, as do those against it. However, the former have what one can’t label either an advantage or disadvantage – The element of an emotional argument that tells us that punishment, if proportionate, is considered the best response to crime. This theory of tooth-for-tooth and eye-for-eye is called Retributive justice.

This theory of retribution is looked at in two different ways by people for and against the death penalty. The proponents look at it as justice, arguing that each person receives what is due to him. Crime disturbs this just order, for the criminal takes away what is not rightfully his – the lives of people, peace and liberties in order to give himself undeserved benefits. The punishment meted out to them is deserved and is a mode of morally protecting society, making the wrongdoer pay a price equivalent to the harm he has done. This is retribution, not to be confused with revenge, which is guided by a different motive.

The same argument is turned on its head by the section against the penalty. Retribution, they put forth, is just another word for revenge, and the desire for revenge is one of the nadir of human emotions. Although this emotion is perhaps understandable, it is not a rational response to a critical situation. To kill the person who has killed someone close to you is simply to continue the cycle of violence which ultimately destroys the avenger as well as the offender. That this execution somehow give ‘closure’ to a tragedy is a myth, they argue.

In a recent newspaper article that appeared in The Hindu, a writer notes the Italian jurist, Cesare Beccari and his treatise, “An Essay on Crimes and Punishments” from 1764. Beccaria’s thesis was based on two primary arguments. First, that the objectives of punishment were dual: to deter the future commission of crimes, which the death penalty decidedly did not achieve, and to reform the offenders, which the death penalty ( Err, quite obviously,) cannot achieve. And two, that the state’s right to take the life of a citizen was erroneous, and opposed the social contract from which it derived its sovereignty.

This brings us to the question of whether capital punishment, by a measure above common imprisonment, deters people from committing crime. After centuries of debate, the answer to Beccaria’s question remains as clear as it did when he published his thesis (That would be in the year 1764, mind.) There exists no empirical evidence that points out the death penalty’s ability to deter crime. Interestingly, the converse has been shown to be true. In the United States, for instance, death penalty States have far worse homicide rates than abolitionist States. So given that capital punishment does not act as a deterrent, and given that it cannot reform an offender (who will, at that point be too far off to be reformed), the only logical argument in its favour is on retributive grounds, which too is a subject of dispute.

Here, there arises a need for clarification – Opposing the death penalty does not mean supporting impunity for crime. It means that the suffering of victims of violent crime and their families is fully acknowledged, along with the recognition of  the duty of governments to protect the rights of victims of crime. The opponents of the death penalty believe that those found responsible – in a fair judicial process – of a crime should be punished- but without recourse to the death. Alternatives, such as solitary confinement have been suggested.

Food for thought – If we take the law as a process ultimately leading to justice (which- more often than not- is never the case), just how fine is the line between law and the justice that we believe comes of it?


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