Capital punishment is one of the most debated issues in our time where governments and rulers need more time to decide on – at least that’s what they say. Some governments impose moratorium to allow more ‘breathing space’ before total abrogation can be attained. One reason for postponing the issue is opinion polls.
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But there are more ways than one to kill a cat, we say. Delaying tactics could be one of the reasons for retentionists. In our study however of the pros and cons of the death penalty, it is with all honesty that in our present time, the reasons for the abolition far outweigh those for retention. The retentionists’ alibis have been too repetitious and have become illogical in the eyes of the world. Those who have retained are governments which have questionable motives; motives which seem personal or for selfish interests.
Hans Gvran Franck, Swedish human rights activist and political figure, who contributed much to the adoption of Protocol No. 13 to the European Convention on Human Rights, which abolishes capital punishment in both wartime and peacetime, says that ‘it is a well known fact that the general attitude toward the death penalty can shift drastically [and] it is mainly after particularly gruesome acts of violence that the ideas favouring retribution and a tough stance against crime gain currency.” (Franck, 2003, p. 33).
Franck further notes that perceptions and attitudes of peoples towards the death penalty can change with increased knowledge. If there’s enough information campaign by people in government and those concerned, favourable opinion can be gained for the abolition of capital punishment.
One of the strongest arguments for the retention of capital punishment or death penalty is the “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” principle in Biblical times where Moses found so hard to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land. God himself found the people hardheaded that he had to devise a plan that could make them follow his will through Moses. But what could be the underlying principle behind this commandment? Was it because God was just trying to protect his people from ‘evil’, or was it to show to the Israelites that a wrong done should have its corresponding punishment, meaning retribution? Or did God allow Moses to enforce it because the evil ways of the people could run counter to his plan of salvation?
We can surmise upon reading the many biblical passages on capital punishment that it was different in those times, or people lived differently. Society wasn’t too organized yet, that’s why God intervened, or ‘talked’ with the people ‘face to face’.
Are those laws in Biblical times applicable today? Because if the answer to this is ‘yes’ then there’s no need of any argument. But the fact is we are now living differently from those times when there were no laws yet, except God’s Ten Commandments of which God Himself had to refine every now and then and ‘explain’ to them through the prophets, kings, and judges.
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For Christians, we have the New Testament, a record of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Christ was a victim of capital punishment. He was tried and sentenced outright without even the chance of defence, and the accusations were all fabricated. And Christ left for us an example – that the state’s finishing of life, legally killing a criminal, is all wrong. Although, theologically speaking, Christ’s dying on the cross was for some deeper meaning, which is redemption for mankind’s sin, there was other meaning of the crucifixion, or the state’s condemning the life of a convicted criminal. He was showing to the world that it was all wrong – the method, the principle, and all the circumstances surrounding the death penalty. The death penalty should be discussed properly by government and all sectors of society.
Another question to ask is: What was the state of society when the death penalty was the popular choice of the peoples of the world? There were so-called barbarous states at the time, which is much different at present. At the present state of the world and governments, we can say that we are more humane than the peoples of the earth in Biblical times – at least, for some countries and governments. At present however there are many states that still impose the death penalty. But there are those postponing abolition but actually their people in government are wantonly punishing their people. Some humanitarian organizations are doing the checking for the great majority of the world population.
Professor Sir Leon Radzinowicz (1999, as cited in Hodgkinson, 2004, p. 2) says that should Cesare Beccaria be alive today and look at the situation on capital punishment, he should probably be disappointed on the ground that the abolitionist cause has acquired the heaviest blow from the United States, which most of the states has rallying behind the retentionist cause.
Some keep on postponing the issue, sometimes imposing moratorium instead of abrogating it, but when talk start on from opposing sectors, controversies would start occupying the headlines once again. We can just look in wonderment the countries or states in the world which have abolished penalty for ordinary crimes – only 195 states or 14% of the countries, leaving 86% with death penalty right before the poor and the oppressed of the world who are the most vulnerable in terms of justice and law in their land.
There are various reasons for or against the death penalty, and they do differ from country to country. Generally these include issues on deterrence, public opinion, and human rights.
In going about the statistics of crimes and capital punishment, we researched on books, periodicals, the internet, and websites which give details about the pros and cons of the death penalty. Amnesty International has a detailed list of the death penalty statistics, or states which have retained and abolished the death penalty. We can get information from Amnesty International website about statistics: 92 abolitionist countries, 10 abolitionist for ordinary crimes, 36 abolitionist in practice, while total abolitionist in law or practice are 138 countries. There are 39 retentionists.
We have listed down at the end of this essay, all the countries which have abolished the death penalty, the year it was abolished, and the nature of crimes. 36 countries are listed by AI as “Abolitionist in practice”, because they have retained the death penalty but have not executed a convicted felon during the past 10 years.
Internationally, abolition of the death penalty is supported by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe when in 1985 it entered into force the draft protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights. (Hodgkinson, 2004, p. 21)
Sometime ago, the death penalty was once imposed by international courts, but it is no longer (Hodgkinson, 2004, p. 61).
During the period after the Second World War, European governments indulged in a few years of executions of war criminals. The last execution in France was late 1970s (Hodkingon, 2004, p. 22).
In the Philippines, there is no evidence of a drop in crime due to capital punishment. Former President Estrada commuted all death sentences in December 2000, and in 2001 his successor President Gloria Arroyo announced a three-year moratorium on the death penalty. Moves to abolish capital punishment are as a result of political leadership at the highest leadership in the Philippines and Taiwan (Hodgkinson, 2004, p. 28).
China remains Asia’s proponent of the death penalty, executing criminals by the thousands, especially those convicted of drug trafficking and fraud on public institutions. The authorities have committed capital punishment as a deterrent. However, China has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, imposing a number of limitations on the use of capital punishment, requiring that it be used only for “‘most serious crimes’ and following trials that respect the most rigorous due process standards.” Chinese jurists express their own dislike of capital punishment but then explain it is inevitable given widespread public support (Hodgkinson, 2004, p. 29).
Arguments for Capital Punishment (The Retentionist)
Historically, capital punishment has not been considered cruel and inhuman punishment because when the Bill of Rights was written in 1789, every state allowed the death penalty.
However, Schabas (1997) in arguing for the abolition, quotes Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was adopted in 1966, as follows:
“In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes in accordance with the law in force at the time of the commission of the crime and not contrary to the provisions of the present Covenant and to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This judgement has to be rendered rendered by a competent court.” (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1976, 999 UNTS 171, art. 6, as cited in Schabas, p. 9).
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In the 1970s, France and Spain were both conducting executions, and South Africa, Ukraine and Russia, now abolitionists, were sentencing hundreds every year. The United Kingdom, Ireland and Canada have not executed anyone for forty or fifty years, it is only within the last few years that they have changed their constitutions against the death penalty (Schabas, 1997, p. 1).
Within Europe, governments of Germany, Austria and Italy abolished capital punishment as part of the ‘transitional justice’ process by which they turned the page on the abuses of the previous decades. Human rights law became the guiding principle of new international organizations, the United Nations and the Council of Europe.
In the United Nations, “the death penalty was treated as an inevitable and necessary exception to the right to life, but also one whose validity was increasingly open to challenge… Full fledged and complete respect for the right to life, something that necessarily involves the abolition of the death penalty, stands as the implied ‘common standard of achievement’ in article 3 of the Universal Declaration.’” (Schabas, 1997, p. 2).
On the other hand, the European Union adopted its Charter of Fundamental Rights. Article 2 states:
- Everyone has the right to life.
- No one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed. (Schabas, 1997, p. 2)
This universal declaration of the right-to-life principle should be binding on all peoples and all states, big and small. We are now living in a new and free world; the age of barbaric principles and practices should be past tense.
Demand for Justice
This is also known as retribution. As W. S. Gilbert (cited in Levinson, p. 160) says: “Let the punishment fit the crime.” In other words, those who kill deserve to be killed – “an eye for an eye”. This can be explained in particular situations.
When someone in the family has been wronged, for example, a daughter has been raped and murdered, the family demands justice. As Rae (2000) says there is an “imbalance created in the social order”. There is a demand for justice created by the imbalance and therefore there should be a restoration of the balance in society. Retentionists say that only capital punishment can equalize the offense of murder or some other crimes such as rape. Rae says, “Only the death penalty can express society’s moral outrage at the taken of innocent life. Justice being satisfied is especially important for a society dependent on due process of law instead of vigilantism to restore the imbalance created by crime.” (p. 212).
Abolitionists, on the other hand, argue that when victims demand for justice, they are seeking revenge which is against the teachings of Jesus and the Bible on loving one’s neighbor and “putting the other cheek” when one strikes you on the other cheek.
But this is confusing personal with social ethics. We indeed have to love our neighbor and teach others to make peace even when they commit wrong against us, because this is part of personal ethics taught by Jesus Christ. But this cannot be applied to the state. “The responsibility of the state is to punish criminals, not to forgive them. The state may not exercise its role unjustly or indiscriminately, but God has given the state the responsibility of criminal punishment.” (Rae, 2000, p. 212)
In other words, the state has the right to defend itself; capital punishment then is defense of the state against criminals.
Schabas (1997) states that, “Public opinion is frequently invoked in defence of capital punishment. Sometimes it presents itself as an excuse, relied upon by legislators and jurists who argue that they are personally favourable to abolition of the death penalty but that they cannot move too far ahead of public opinion.” (p. 3).
Politicians use this seeming justification for postponing or retaining capital punishment. They say that it is a part of democracy, or that democracy rules in this present world that capital punishment continues – because it is the will of the people.
Robert Jay an Greg Mitchell (cited in Schabas, 1997, p. 3) state that the “death penalty exists uneasily in any contemporary democracy. Emerging democratic attitudes, over centuries, mostly militate against state killing.”
Deterrence means “the belief that criminals would end their careers in crime due to the threat of punishment [death] by the criminal justice system” (Levinson, 2002, p. 162).
The issue of deterrence has been raised by governments to support retentionist position. But Hodgkinson (2004) says that this could be a “reliance on hope than evidence”. (p. 10).
Roger Hood (cited in Hodgkinson, p. 9) states: “[E]conometric analyses have not provided evidence from which it would be prudent to infer that capital punishment has any marginally greater deterrent effect than alternative penalties.” In other words, states imposing death penalty have no grounds holding as deterrent measure for crimes.
Isaac Erlich (cited in Hodgkinson, 2004, p. 9) showed in a study that death is a deterrent to the crime of murder. Erlich’s work was ‘a systematic analysis of the relation between capital punishment and the crime of murder’. Erlich’s study found that from 1933 to 1965 ‘an additional execution per year … may have resulted on the average in seven or eight fewer murders’. Although Erlich conceded that the finding was not a justification that other punishments could not be used as deterrent, still it showed that capital punishment is a deterrent.
Another study conducted by Hashem Dezhbakhsh, Paul Rubin and Joanna Shepherd (as cited by Hodgkinson, 2004, p. 9) also concluded that capital punishment has a strong deterrent effect “and that each execution results on average in eighteen fewer murders.”
However, these studies were contradicted by John Sorenson, Robert Wrinkle, Victoria Brewer and James Marquart who conducted their own study in Texas between 1984 and 1997, and found no evidence of a deterrent effect. They used Texas as the subject for their study because this state had a high number of sentences and executions. It was concluded in the study that capital punished had no deterrent effect.
Michael Mello, a death-row lawyer and author of Dead Wrong, and who had witnessed the system of imposing capital punishment in the Circuit Court in Texas, says how flawed the system of capital punishment is. Mello tells of how a convict named Stanley, considered mentally retarded, was executed for some inefficiencies of the trial attorney.
Kronenwetter (2001) says, “Abolitionists argue that most murderers cannot think rationally enough to be deterred by any penalty, including death.” (p. 27).
Most crimes like murder which are considered heinous crime by many states are also considered crimes of passion, committed when in anger, hatred, and frustration, that people committing it don’t know exactly what they are doing. They don’t what are the consequences of their action.
This is one of the best arguments supporting the abolitionist stand. Indeed, murder and other capital offenses were committed in moments where criminals did not have time to think that what they were about to commit were punishable by death. Although this is an explanation taking into consideration the psychological point of view, what is pointed out here is the logical side of things.
“Most other murderers – those who cold-bloodedly plan and carry out their crimes – think they are too clever to be caught. The death penalty cannot be a deterrent to them because they are convinced they will escape punishment of any kind.
What Albert Pierrepoint, the legendary British executioner who became an opponent of capital punishment after his retirement in the late 1950s, said on capital punishment is worth noting here importantly: “The death penalty never once acted as a deterrent in all the jobs I carried out … and I have executed more people than anyone this century.” (Kronenwetter, 2001, p. 23).
Supporters of capital punishment face an obvious problem when they try to prove that the death penalty deters. How can they establish that someone would have committed a crime if that person ahd not been deterred by the threat of the death penalty?” (Kronenwetter, 2001, p. 23).
And some governments just support it for not apparent reasons. “Governments and others in positions of influence refer to strong public support for the death penalty as one of the justifications for retaining it.” (Hodgkinson, 2004, p. 18).
But capital punishment is cruel as provided for in the Eighth Amendment. Cruel and unusual punishment, which is prohibited in the Eight Amendment in the Bill of Rights, means “punishment that inflicts pain in a wanton and unnecessary manner, as well as punishment that is disproportionate to the crime committed.” (Rae, 2000, p. 214).
Capital Punishment is Humane
Proponents of the death penalty argue that punishment of death can be accomplished in a humane and not cruel way. The punishment can be administered in a way that it does not involve wanton infliction of pain, much like euthanasia where a lethal drug is injected on the patient so that he would not suffer anymore from pain. This can be done also to the convict (Rae, 2000, p. 214).
When retentionists say this, it’s tantamount to saying that killing is humane and not cruel. It would mean that a crime could not be corrected no matter the gravity of the crime. We call our institutions correctional because we intend to correct a wrong that has been done, and that include crimes of murder and other grievous crimes.
Moreover, according to Rae, “the cost of lifetime term in prison is far greater than the cost of the appeals process.” Caring for inmates for the rest of their lives cost about $900,000, while providing for the needs of a death row inmate just costs about $30,000. Rae (2000) says that “the cost of life imprisonment is much greater than the cost of appealing a death sentence.” (p. 214).
There should never be a reasonable argument for the amount spent to preserve a life even if that life belongs to a murderer. Governments of the world should be able to shoulder the costs of correcting convicts because that’s the only way our society can be called humane and Godly.
Arguments for the Abolition
First the system is flawed. The justice system of world governments could be sending innocent victims to the gallows. Second, the death penalty undermines the dignity of persons made in the image of God and cheapens human life.
Capital punishment runs counter to the humane treatment of prisoners and convicts. It was during Biblical times when the world was not yet governed by laws. God directly communicated with the Israelites, and the mentality of the people at that time is very different from today. God has given us all these tools, technology, and above all education to understand what is right and wrong for us.
Franck et al. (2003) state this strong argument against capital punishment:
The idea that the death penalty is needed as a form of retribution for a crime, as an act of vengeance, is outdated. No countries that respect the rule of law invoke this principle any longer on an official level to justify their use of the death penalty. Hence, civilized nations ruled by law have gradually come to abandon the concept of retribution and either abolished the death penalty or thought up new reasons for using it. There are still, however, people who cling to the retribution argument and who believe that there are crimes so terrible that society’s only appropriate response can be to kill the perpetrator (Franck et al., 2003, p. 34).
There are those who point to the barbaric aspect of the killing. From then on, prophets and great men have come – all of these great men never advocated capital punishment. We have had Jesus Christ, the prophet Mohamed, Mahatma Gandhi, Buddha, and the great leaders of the Catholic, Islam, Hinduism, and other denominations who have all advocated love for one’s neighbor, and for states and communities to give each and every human being a chance to reform and be a part of society after one has committed wrong to society.
It has never been the nature of humans to be retributive and vengeful. Man was not created like an animal with claws and pangs. He was created to be loving and thoughtful to his fellow human being. Christ teaches us to pass on the other cheek when one hits you. This is the principle of forgiveness – not killing.
The death penalty is cruel and inhuman. The long history of the death penalty could tell us how it was during the times of barbaric and uncivilized people. It was during the time of Moses, when he had to impose the strictest measures on God’s chosen people. Now criminal punishment is being motivated by the desire for revenge. In a society that so values human life, it seems inconsistent for a person to be against abortion and for the death penalty.
Moratorium will lead to genuine abolition. Professor Roger Hood (cited in Hodgkinson, p. 3) argues that capital punishment violates the fundamental right to life; it is not a deterrent for criminals to commit the same crime again; that there are a lot of flaws in the administration of the death penalty even in developed legal systems; and the effects of capital punishment is counter-productive and is totally out of this present modern world. (R. Hood, ‘Capital Punishment – A Global Perspective’ (2001) 3 Punishment & Society, as cited in Hodgkinson, p. 3).
Franck (2003) adds that ‘the conditions surrounding the execution itself and the period between the sentence and the carrying out of the sentence, which is frequently quite long, make it possible to compare the death penalty to torture.’ (p. 35).
This condition is similar to torture, an inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, which is prohibited under international law. “The prohibition against torture is universal and absolute, thus not exceptions are permitted.” (Franck et al., 2003, p. 35).
From the pros and cons of capital punishment, we have gathered some strongest arguments. These arguments seem to change over time or as times change due to opinion from the great population. But we have noted some of the great and noted personalities like Hans Gvran Franck who says that ‘today’s societies are assured of certain inalienable rights, rights that extend even to the most hardened criminals.’ (p. 34)
We have laws and punishment for even recidivist criminals. We can correct these criminals and in modern times, it is not anymore society’s obligation to kill a hardened criminal. This is reflective of the barbaric times when criminals who were not even positively proven guilty by the most competent court were automatically killed.
The statistics of world states indicate that majority still impose capital punishment. However, this fraction of the world population can dissuade others or conduct continuous information campaign and impart knowledge or, in the words of Hans Gvran Franck, “show the fallacy of the original motive for capital punishment – the concept of retaliation – that dominated criminal law for a long time.”
For a clean and human society of today, capital punishment should be past tense. States which have totally abolished it should continue the pressure on others doing it. God will have a different look on us when all of us follow his will of totally abolishing killing our fellowmen no matter what their sins are to society.
Countries that abolished the death penalty and the nature of crimes (from Amnesty International website:
|Country||Year Abolished||Nature of crime|
|Luxembourg, Nicaragua,Norway||1979||all crimes|
|Brazil, Fiji and Peru||1979||ordinary crimes|
|France and Cape Verde||1981||all crimes|
|The Netherlands||1982||all crimes|
|Cyprus and El Salvador||1983||ordinary crimes|
|Haiti, Liechtenstein, German|
|Democratic Republic||1987||all crimes|
|Cambodia, New Zealand,|
|Romania, Slovenia||1989||all crimes|
|Andora, Croatia, Czech & Slovak|
|Rep., Hungary, Ireland, Mozambique|
|Namibia, Sao Tome & Principe||1990||all crimes|
|Angola, Paraguay, Switzerland||1992||all crimes|
|Guninea-Bissau, Hong Kong,|
|Djibouti, Mauritius, Moldova, Spain||1995||all crimes|
|Georgia, Nepal, Poland, South Africa||1999||all crimes|
|Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Canada, Estonia,|
|Lithuania, United Kingdom||1998||all crimes|
|East Timor, Turkmenistan, Ukraine||1999||all crimes|
|Cote D’lvoire, Malta||2000||all crimes|
|Cyprus and Yugoslavia (now 2 states|
|Serbia and Montenegro||2002||all crimes|
|Bhutan, Greece, Samoa, Senegal,|
|Liberia and Mexico||2005||all crimes|
|Albania, Cook Islands and Rwanda||2007||all crimes|
|Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan||2007||ordinary crimes|
|Uzbekistana nd Argentina||2008||all crimes|
- Amnesty International. Abolitionist and Retentionist Countries.
- Bedau, H. A. (2005). An Abolitionist’s Survey of the Death Penalty in America Today. In. H. A. Bedau and P. G. Cassell, Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment?: The Experts on Both Sides Make Their Best Case. U.S.A.: Oxford University Press, 2005. 23-24.
- Franck, H. G., Nyman, K., and Schabas, W. ( 2003). The Barbaric Punishment: Abolishing the Death Penalty (The Raoul Wallenberg Institute Human Rights Library, 12). United Kingdom: Kluwer Law International. 34-35.
- Hodgkinson, P. (2004). Capital Punishment: Improve it or Remove It? In P. Hodgkinson and W. Schabas, Eds. Capital Punishment: Strategies for Abolition. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 1-10.
- Kronenwetter, M. (2001). Capital Punishment: A Reference Handbook. United States of America: ABC-CLIO Inc. 25-42.
- Levinson, D. (2002). Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment. United States of America: Sage Publications. 160.
- Rae, S. (2000). Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House. 211-215.
- Schabas, W. A. (1997). Introduction. In H. G. Franck, K. Nyman, and W. Schabas, The Barbaric Punishment: Abolishing the Death Penalty (The Raoul Wallenberg Institute Human Rights Library, 12). 1-21, 34. United Kingdom: Kluwer Law International.