The decree of death

Justice is blind; it does not get swayed by emotions

The decree of death
The nation is coming to grips with the carnage witnessed on 16th of December 2014 at Peshawar. We are very emotional people and find it difficult to have a balanced view of issues. We either love the Taliban or hate them. We think retribution is the only answer to brutality. Hence, as a knee jerk reaction, we lifted the seven year moratorium on capital punishment in order to “deal” with the terrorists. If we consider the attacks and the attackers inhumane then why do we have to resort to their level to seek revenge?

The expression ‘capital punishment’ comes from the Latin word for head ‘capitalis.’ In some countries it is also known as the death penalty or death row. This has been used for centuries as a form of punishment for serious crimes. At times it has also been misused for personal, political or religious reasons. When one talks about capital punishment, it usually refers to a state authorising certain authorities, after reasonable and extensive judicial review, to put someone to death. But when a similar act is carried out by non-state apparatus then it is accounted as murder.

Amnesty International did an annual survey in 2005 on the death penalty and found that 94% of the executions in the world took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US. They also stated that in 2006, Iran executed 177 people, Pakistan 82, both Iraq and Sudan 65, and 53 executions took place in the USA. There are also at least 20,000 prisoners awaiting execution worldwide. The most common method for execution used in Pakistan is hanging. Unfortunately, until recently we were also one of the very few countries that allowed the execution of convicts less than 18 years of age.

Those who defend capital punishment do it often on the following grounds: there is a moral obligation on us as a society to protect our citizens. Thus when people murder, they threaten this safety and by putting them to death only, can we ensure that convicted murderers do not kill again. The other mostly used rhetoric is that death penalty helps because it may deter violent crime and murderous behaviour of potential future convicts.
Why do we have to resort to their level to seek revenge?

There are still others who would argue that by doing this we create a balance between good and evil.

But the crucial question here is what are we really looking for? Is it justice or is it retribution? The reason why justice is blind is because it does not get swayed by emotions. If we want someone to be punished out of vengeance then there is a fundamental error in our approach. We can have an aversion to the act, but it is extremely important to understand the context of the act and if there is no space to manoeuvre in our law then the chances of someone losing their life unjustly is highly likely.

Can an execution really act as deterrence? I don’t know. There is not enough evidence to suggest that it can or can’t. But if it did then there would be no criminal loss of life or violent crimes in the countries where capital punishments still exists. In fact the USA shows a higher rate of violent deaths as compared to the UK, whereas the death penalty was completely abolished from the statute book and substituted with life imprisonment in the latter around 1998. Can life long incarceration be as atrocious as death?

When we support the death penalty we also make a supposition that such people cannot be rehabilitated, therefore they shall kill again when released. This again is a faulty assumption. There are many examples of people who found redemption during their time in prison waiting for their death while others became very useful part of the society when released from prison after a life sentence.

Stanley Tokkie Williams III was well known gangster and was the founder and member of the Crips gang in California. He was implicated in a number of murders in the late 70’s and was imprisoned and put on death row. During his time in prison he reformed himself and began anti-gang activism, writing book in which he condemned gang culture of hate and violence in the 90’s. He was executed in December 2005 after the state governor Arnold Schwarzenegger refused clemency appeals. Should a person be allowed to live their life again, if they repent?

Those who strongly oppose capital punishment believe in the sanctity of human life. They argue that you cannot condone what you condemn. This simply means that if we condemn the killing of a human being then we cannot attain anything by supporting the killing of another. They are not against punishment, just against putting someone to death.

They also argue that miscarriages of justice happens everyday and if someone was executed by mistake then it is impossible to remedy any such mistakes. In the court of Law when things cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt then they are taken on a balance of probability. This balance can tilt in favour of the defendant at anytime in the future. And then what about people, who end up committing heinous crimes secondary to their mental disorder, should they be executed or set free. What if they commit those acts again when freed?

There are no easy or right and wrong answers to these questions. There is also a third group who support capital punishment but after a wide range of options have been exhausted. They believe people can be and should be rehabilitated and those who repent do deserve another chance. The death penalty should be reserved only for repeat offenders whose crime represents a pre-meditated action.

“Perhaps the bleakest fact of all is that the death penalty is imposed not only in a freakish and discriminatory manner, but also in some cases upon defendants who are actually innocent”- Justice William J Brennan Jr, 1994.

The writer is a consultant psychiatrist in the UK