The concept of the death penalty is one of the world’s most sensitive issues due to the fact countries are divided over its use and validity. While there are nations who have slowly removed the death penalty in their penal code, there are states who still see its worth and continue to practice it against the worst criminals in their history. Currently, countries like the United States and Iran continue the practice of the capital punishment despite the controversies regarding their executions and the nature of death penalty itself. However, it is visible that both nations varied extensively as to why they use the death penalty and how they enact such punishment. This paper will analyze the similarities and difference of the American and Iranian death penalty policies.
Death Penalty in the United States and Iran
Capital punishment or the death penalty can be considered one of the world’s most sensitive issues that remains on fierce debate as countries are divided over its validity and ethical purpose. Some countries have outlawed the use of the death penalty due to the argument that invoking this punishment even to someone guilty of a crime violates their right to live. Others even argued that death penalty is ineffective and some convicts given this sentence were actually innocent. However, there are countries which retained the use of the death penalty as the highest punishment they can bestow on criminals and two of them are the United States and Iran. Although both do practice the death penalty, America’s death penalty sentences are dependent on state, federal and military law while Iran’s death penalty sentences varies depending on the offense committed and their corresponding category in shariah law.
Sentencing a criminal with the death penalty is not a new occurrence in the United States as such punishment had been in use for almost 400 years. According to Marcus (2007), the first onset of the death penalty in the country was in 1622 in Virginia when it was still an English colony. Early English common law had been applied in the American colonies and stressed that any person who commits felony would immediately be punished to their death . At this period, Dieter (2008) stated that convicts were hanged publicly using a rope thrown over a tree or scaffolding as most colonies had easy access to trees were these executions can take place. Public execution would ensure that the rest of the colony are aware as to the consequences of comitting such acts, enabling the reduction of crimes in the period.
Although public executions and hangings continued until the 20th century, New York introduced in 1890 a new form of capital punishment through electrocution and redefined the definition of the death penalty to the public. Upon their introduction of electrocution and the technology behind it, Americans slowly thought that this form of execution is more dignified and less painful as compared to hanging. Others even believed that this form of execution is actually quite humane and should there be a mistake as to who has been executed, it was now done privately without the public knowing. However, with this shift to technological means in enacting the death penalty, there were the growing belief that death penalty should be repealed due to their risks and constitutionality. The Supreme Court had halted executions in 1972 in response to these calls to reconsider the death penalty .
Upon the court’s analysis , Manzi (2003) stated that there have been several appeals done by convicts such as in the cases of Jackson v. Georgia and Furman v. Georgia saying that their sentences is questiomable and unconstitutional due to its violation of the Eight Amendment. The defendants on both cases – Jackson and Furman – were sentenced to death for committing rape and murder respectively and their appeal had caused the Supreme Court to vote regarding the essence of the death penatly. Furman’s case had been influential considering that it had questioned the constitutionality of how the death penalty is done. At least 37 states – including the District of Columbia, the military and the federal government – had to use amendments to revise their death penalty policies to ensure that abolishing it completely would not be done. These states removed the juror discretion that would automatically sentence a criminal to death if their crime is under the prescribed list and ensured that guidelines would be placed to ensure death penalty judgements are constitutional and acceptable.
At the present time, 38 states – including the federal government and the military – use the death penalty and most of them prefer lethal injection. However, some states also permit the use of the other four death penalty methods such as electrocution, lethal gas, hanging or firing squad. Having these alternative methods ensures that states ensuras that policies are still met despite the deadlines they have set. Arizona, for example, is required to sentence those under the death row after November 15, 1992 through lethal injection while all others before that date would be sentenced to death through lethal injection or through gas chambers. Some states also have these alternative clauses to ensure that they have another method in place just in case the primary death penalty sentence is ruled unconstitutional by the court .
While there are states which have outlawed the use of the death penalty, death penalty in its entirety remained popular in the country as a legal punishment to criminals. According to Dezhbakhsh and Shepherd (2006), supporters to the death penalty when the US first tried to abolish the death penalty in the 1960s, the number of murder rates in the country have shot up to 9.3% each year. It is only when the moratorium on the death penalty lifted and the resumption of the death penalty sentence in 1976 did the murder rates drop throughout the country . In recent years, this argument was supported according to Alfano (2007) as studies from the University of Colorado released in 2003 indicated that every death penalty execution had ensured the reduction of homicide rates in the state by up to five times while an increase in homicide rate is plausible once death penalty is repealed.
Siegel (2009) and Soss, Langbein and Metelko (2003) also added that the death penalty in the US or in any country in particular is actually morally correct. Given the language used for the US Constitution, its premises showed that while “cruel and unusual punishments” are forbidden, it does not include the death penalty. When the Constitution was being drafted, capital punishment already persisted and the founding fathers believed that it is a states’ discretion if they wish to retain or repeal the death penalty. While there would be people who would say it is cruel to use capital punishment, it is not a new form of punishment. Using the death penalty is also a just punishment as it is given to criminals who have commited the same level of pain or trauma. People also wish for the lives of these criminals once it is made clear they killed innocent lives .
In terms on how religion in the US sees the death penalty, the position of the country’s religious groups have varied extensively. According to Wozniak (2009), some groups such as the American Baptist Churches in the USA, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian and Methodist Church and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops had stressed they are against capital punishment. However, groups like the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Evangelical Association supports the use of the death penalty. Experts cited that the reason for this variety in religious stances in the US Catholic groups is the fact the Bible actually has verses that stress their support and opposition to the death penalty. Passages such as Genesis 9:6 and Exodus 21:23-25 indicated that retribution is permitted, and at the same time, forgiveness must be done. There is also no wording in the Bible that pertained to how forgiveness should be given. Catholics in the US also vary extensively on their support to the death penalty to the extent it is dependent on the factors that could influence their support to said punishment .
On the other hand, Iran’s death penalty policy has been based through their interpretation of the Qu’ran. According to Okon (2014), Islam’s religious law cannot be abolished especially when it comes to the death penalty despite calls for its abolition. Islam itself agrees that people have the right to live; however, under the Qu’ran, death is permitted if the court of law demands. Since Islam’s early beginnings in the seventh and eight centuries, the Shari’a and the Fiqh have determined how Muslims live their life and how their rule of law is developed. The Shari’a establishes the ideology and manners Muslims must abide by and the Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) highlights the legal process as to how the rule of law is to be followed. Currently, Islamic penal law is divided into four categories: the Haad/Houdoud, Quissas, Diya and the Tazir. Each category has divides all commutable crimes and their respective punishments and the finality of each jurist decision. The Haad/Houdoud include crimes such as adultery, theft, rebellion, apostacy and defamation and any person found guity of these crimes is punishable by death without possible pardon . According to Schabas (2000), Quissas crimes include crimes directed against another person; however, victims of Quissas crimes can pardon criminals. The Diya also ensures that victims would be given restitution while the Tazir, punishment is determined by the authorities themselves .
Ghassemi (2009) stressed that Iran’s penal law and Constitution adheres to the Shari’a criteria and bases their punishments accordingly. Hudud/Haad crimes in Iran include adultery, sapphism, sexual slander, and corruption on earth. Usually, whipping is the common punishment to these types of crimes except for rebellion, theft and corruption on earth where criminals are either amputated, crucified or killed depending on the decision of the judge. Qisas punishments, on the other hand, can either be sentencing the criminal to death or they could provide blood money or the Diya. For crimes that do not have a religious basis, death penalty is still possible through the region’s Islamic penal code. In Iran, the Majlis indicates that death penalty should be given to those caught doing drug trafficking. Most of the convicts who are sentenced to death due to the Taazir crimes are often the poor, who could not pay the 100,000 Rials fine without evidence .
Currently, Donaghy (2015) reported that Amnesty International indicated Iran is alongside Saudi Arabia, and Iraq are the three of the world’s top death penalty users with the highest death count. Iran, in its case, announced an official 289 executions in 2014 according to the Amnesty International report. However, it is believed that secret killings were done by Iran which would put the death penalty toll to 743. Some of the most notable cases in Iran’s death penalty sentences was against Ahwazi Arab minority members Hadi Rashedi and Hashem Sha’bani who were executed in 2014 after their attempts to fight against state discrimination. There are even concerns with regards to the execution of 14 juvenile offenders in the country . Many had appealed against the Iranian death penalty scheme as reported by Slackman (2009) as it is becoming visible that the Iranian government is using the death penalty as a legal means to intimidate their political rivals and prevent ethnic unrest around the region. Some convicts were activists who were against the current government. Iran also does not release a clear statistics on executions, which causes many activists and human rights groups to question just how much were killed under the death penalty and what offenses they were punished for by the government . Although it is not clear as to what the position of the Iranian public is with the issue, Islamic law –according to Schabas (2000) stresses that death penalty should be done in public to ensure deterrence. In some cases, it should be carried out with a sword or lapidation if the criminal has committed adultery .
In the present time, it is clear that death penalty would continue to persist as long as countries or governments like the United States and Iran see it as an effective crime buffer. Although it is true that some states in the US have slowly outlawed the death penalty, Americans firmly stress that the death penalty is effective repelling horrific crime from fostering in number but they are open to reform if it is unconstitutional. In Iran’s case, repealing the death penalty would have contradicted their religion and Islamic doctrine itself has ruled its legality. However, in comparison to America’s openness to stop death penalty if it is ruled unconstitutional, Iran vehemently practices it despite the questionable use of the death penalty and the public cannot campaign against it without fearing for their lives. If death penalty has to be repealed in these two countries, a suitable alternative must be introduced and in Iran’s case, a reassessment in Islamic law interpretations must be considered and developed.
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