The death penalty arrived at after a decision by a judicial process to execute someone as a punishment for breaking the law. In some cases this form of punishment is referred to as capital punishment based on the fact that the crimes which are punished this way are called capital offences. The term capital on its part comes from a Latin word ‘capitalis’ which when directly translated means ‘regarding the head’. This is why the earliest form of capital punishment was mainly beheading or hanging. However there has been criticism regarding this form of punishment based on the philosophy that no human being has the right to dictate when another human being’s life starts or ends. This argument is supported by most religious groups and human rights activists. Currently there are only 58 countries that practice this form of punishment with about 95 nations abolishing it. One good example of a region that has abolished this form of capital punishment is Europe where Article 2 in their Charter on Basic Rights prohibits the use of the death penalty. There has been a lot of talk on the negatives and positives of capital punishment but the question remains, is this form of punishment necessary?
The initiation of the death penalty was meant to act as a deterrent for people from committing crimes. One thing to note here is that not even to the initiators, not every crime was to be punished using the death penalty. Human rights activists have argued that other forms of punishment such as life imprisonment may also deter people from committing crimes. The argument put across by these activists is that being denied some freedoms for life is frightening enough for people to avoid committing crimes. Those supporting the death penalty however refute this claim based on the fact that life in most of the prisons today has being made so comfortable that spending a life time there is not such a bad thing as compared to struggling to feed oneself during this tough economic times. Most prisons are now offering their prisoners facilities such as cinema halls, cyber cafes, gyms, and also facilities to get conjugal rights are now a common thing. This means that life imprisonment cannot be used as a deterrent for capital crimes based on the fact that it is more lenient than it was a few decades ago when prisons were dark, soggy places where even the hardest of criminals dreaded to go.
The death penalty is however limited in the sense that this form of punishment is irreversible in a situation where evidence emerges after the trial that a person is indeed innocent after all. Supporters of the death penalty however refute this argument by saying that all the cases punished by death are so clear that the accused is guilty. However statistics show that about 40 executions have been done in the United States alone when there was still substantial evidence to show that a person may be innocent. The difference in argument between these two sides is mainly because those for the death penalty mainly base their debates on high profile cases such as acts of terrorism where in most cases the suspect has previously confessed for conducting the act. Also the fact that no system is fool proof is used the wrongful executions. The argument here is that it is not the execution which is bad but the judicial system which is not effective. This raises a rather philosophical question, ‘can we separate the bee from its sting or the dog from its bite?’ The most rational answer here is no and so if the judicial system has failed then the death penalty has also failed. And one thing is clear, the judicial system can not misuse the powers vested in it by the people to gamble with the lives of the same people it is supposed to protect. Take for example the fact that the emergence of DNA technology has helped exonerate about 15 death row inmates in the United States as new evidence obtained using the technology shows their innocence.
Based on my rational understanding of the situation I am of the opinion that both sides of the debate have a point. For one, the death penalty looks like the only viable option there is of deterring criminals from engaging in criminal activities again. Secondly, since most of these criminals go back to their criminal ways after their time in jail is done it shows that taking them out of society is the only way. Most supporters of the death penalty argue that when these criminals are locked in jail for life they end up getting followers both in and out of the prisons- they become some sort of heroes. Fear of heroism can however not be used as a reason to advance the death penalty. This is because even the capital punishment itself can result in heroism. For example, the hanging of former Iraq president Saddam Hussein ended up making him more of a hero than he was before he died.
The death penalty may look like a viable option for dealing with criminals but it is not. This is because the same way no person dictates when another starts living then no person should dictate when another stops living. The death penalty may have been a strong deterrent in ancient civilizations but if mankind still keeps on holding to it then the whole point of civilization being a continuous process is made obsolete. What is needed is an effective tool to punish capital offenders while at the same time giving them an opportunity to reform. Also it is high time the judicial system concentrated more on reforming criminals rather than punishing them. All this is possible with the numerous findings made in the field of psychology which has helped in understanding human behavior better. Those against the death penalty are right in the sense that no person has the right to take the life of another, but also those supporting the death penalty are right in the simple sense that capital offenders need to be deterred from repeating their offences. And so the real debate is not on the use of the death penalty but on the alternative ways that do not take away life but at the same time deter people from engaging in crime.
Bacon, Sarah. The Death Penalty: America’s Experience with Capital Punishment. New York: OUP, 2007.
Banner, Stuart. The Death Penalty: An American History. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2003.
Bedau, Hugo and Paul Cassell. Debating the Death Penalty. New York: OUP, 2005.
Prejean, Helen. Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty. Boston: Vintage, 1994.