Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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© Copyright 2004



Social Concerns


Say NO to capital punishment

Capital punishment is back in the news. Not that it ever went completely out of news. But Saddam Hussein’s hanging on December 30 2006 has once again brought this barbarous practice into sharp focus.

This has been the trend for a long time: every time, a death sentence is carried out especially in countries such as the U.S. and India – where there is a strong opinion against it – a debate begins to rage. Often, the dice is loaded against sending a man to the gallows, and, after all, capital punishment amounts to “murder by the State”. Or, to use a stronger phrase, it is “constitutional killing”, where such an inhuman act is made part of the statute books, and, worse, publicised and gloated over.

Sometimes, even the U.S., which considers itself to be righteous enough to police the world, makes a song-and-dance of some of the executions it carries out. There has been at least one case in America’s recent past where the entire episode of a man being put to death through a lethal injection was captured live on camera and shown to a group of people sitting outside the execution chamber. This was as terrible as the public hangings are in Saudi Arabia or Iran, where capital punishment is carried out in a public place watched by hundreds of people. Sometimes, a crane is used to hang a man!

What happened to Saddam Hussein was as ghastly. Not only was he taunted and teased during his last moments, but also someone had captured the images on his mobile phone and put them on the Internet.

This is what happens: the sentence becomes a means to seek revenge, and ceases to be just a punishment.

But the moot point is, this kind of retribution does not act as a deterrent. Contrary to popular belief, death sentence does not prevent crime. "Expert after expert and study after study have emphasised and emphasised the lack of correlation between the threat of the death penalty and the occurrence of violent crime". Isaac Ehrlich's study on the deterrent effect of capital punishment – one of the most authoritative till date in the U.S. -- reveals this. The study spans twenty-five years, 1957-1982, and shows that there were 8,060 murders in 1957 and 65 executions. However, in 1982, there were 22,520 murders and one execution. The absence of deterrence is clear.

A New York Times survey done in 2004 clearly shows that the homicide rates in the executing States are higher than those in the non-executing ones. This is another example which proves that capital punishment is no deterrent.

Recent crime figures from abolitionist countries fail to show that abolition has harmful effects. In Canada, for example, the homicide rate per 100,000 population fell from a peak of 3.09 in 1975, the year before the abolition of the death penalty for murder, to 2.41 in 1980, and since then it has declined further. In 2003, 27 years after abolition, the homicide rate was 1.73 per 100,000 population, 44 per cent lower than in 1975 and the lowest rate in three decades.

In 2002, a United Nations survey concluded: It is not prudent to accept the hypothesis that capital sentence deters murder to a marginally greater extent than does the threat and application of the supposedly lesser punishment of life imprisonment”.

Hendrick Hertzberg, wrote: "Society must manifest a terrible anger in the face of a terrible crime, for nothing less will suffice to remind us of the moral order by which alone we can live as human beings". This is a serious moral argument. Opponents of capital punishment say that "... the death sentence demeans the moral order, and execution is not legalised murder--nor is imprisonment legalised kidnapping--but it is the coldest, most premeditated form of homicide of all. It does something almost worse than lowering the State to the moral level of the criminal: it raises the criminal to moral equality with the social order". In short, it is a sad reminder of a barbaric, uncivilised society that believes in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

The possibility of an innocent person being put to death is another strong factor against capital punishment. According to a 1987 Stanford University survey, at least 23 Americans were wrongly executed in the 20th century. Many escaped in the nick of time.

Since 1973, 123 prisoners have been released in the U.S. after evidence emerged of their innocence of the crimes for which they were sentenced to death. There were six such cases in 2004, two in 2005 and one in 2006. Some prisoners had come close to execution after spending many years under sentence of death.

In India, although death sentence is decreed only in the rarest of rare cases, miscarriage of justice could well be significant, given the state of the judiciary, the corruption in the police force and societal complexities. The judiciary is overburdened with hundreds of legal cases pending for several years. A shortage of judges contributes to lengthy delays in the pronouncement of verdicts. An ill-paid police force seeks to better its living standards through bribery and nepotism, and a society heavily divided on the lines of religion, caste and language helps to nurture such sleaze. In a scenario such as this, cases of wilful conviction may not be exactly uncommon.

Yet, unlike China (where 84 per cent of all known executions in 2005 took place), Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and the U.S. to an extent, India is seriously contemplating doing away with the noose. The country’s enlightened public opinion and the higher echelons in the judiciary are keen on this.

There are about 130 States the world over that no longer send a man to the gallows, and this number is growing. India may well follow suit. Today, the French, for instance, view the guillotine, immortalised by the French Revolution and Charles Dickens in his “A Tale of Two Cities”, with utter disdain. India might well look at the hangman’s noose that way some day. And, who knows, the rest of the retentionists may as well.

For, can the threat of death stop a crime of passion? Can it halt a terrorist in his tracks? Can you hang a man twice?

The erstwhile princely State of Travancore (which now forms part of Kerala) had before India’s independence abolished the noose. Heaven’s did not fall.

(Posted on this website on January 22 2007)