The troubling aspects of capital punishment

Disclaimer: This is not a GP Essay – simply personal thoughts on a weighty issue (:

Lately, I’ve been dwelling on the rather macabre topic of capital punishment because we’ll be broaching on the Crime and Punishment theme next week. It’s a theme that has always fascinated me, for reasons I can’t really put my finger on. Anyway, the holiday assignment requires students to discuss whether capital punishment should be abolished.

Here’s the thing: I’ve read arguments for and against capital punishment, heard debates on the crucial role it plays in deterrence of crime, even written essays (of a more balanced nature) on it, but I don’t honestly know how necessary it is. Instinctively (and moral instinct is not a good source to cite in academic essays), I’ve developed a rather stringent personal criteria for the meting out of capital punishment – I feel that the death penalty should only be meted out to individuals who have intentionally committed (i) genocide and (ii) crimes against humanity. By this, I mean systematic and widespread attacks on large groups of civilian population. What’s troubling me is this: I believe that capital punishment really isn’t necessary for any other crime; why should these two categories of crime be distinct from the rest? What is the rationale for this stringent criteria? (Is it just because it instinctively feels…right that individuals like Saddam Hussein, who expressed no repentance, be executed?)

For all other cases, I think that the abolitionists have a pretty solid case. Personally, I feel that there are two really strong arguments against the death penalty – (a) there is always a risk of executing the innocent – which, in my books, is simply not acceptable; and (b) there is a question of whether swift death, as opposed to life imprisonment without parole, is a punishment that is proportional to the crime committed. Yup, surprisingly, these two arguments do not involve the UNDHR (Universal Declaration of … you-know-what) or the inhumanity argument.

Proponents of capital punishment attempt to address the issue of (a) by arguing that the number of innocent ‘criminals’ executed is really a small price to pay, when considering that having capital punishment in the legislation saves more lives in the long-run. I personally find this defense rather weak – ‘a small price to pay’? This is such a utilitarian view, based on the hypothetical and unwarranted view that death penalty deters, that neglects the appalling injustice done to that innocent, executed individual and his family. How on earth would the state answer to the family members of the wrongly-executed? There is no reversal, no adequate compensation or apology, no means of explaining the errors made – there is simply no recourse. And this risk of human error will always, always exists – so long as Man is not God, we should not pretend to be all-knowing and neglect the possibility that yes, confessions could have been coerced, evidence might have been tainted, witnesses could have been mistaken – the list goes on. The point is this: we should presume a man innocent until proven guilty, and we should also acknowledge that this process of proving guilt is susceptible to human error.

(To be continued)

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