WHY THE DEATH PENALTY IS WRONG
THE DEATH PENALTY IS HYPOCRITICAL
Governments should be upholding the value of life. Everyone should be taught to respect life, and that each person's life is unique and precious. No one has the right to kill another person--not a murderer, not the yakuza, and not the government. It is hypocritical for any society to claim that premeditated killing is the most intolerable crime, and then carry out premeditated state killings. The judicial system says that neither vengeance, nor retribution are valid reasons for murder--yet these are the principle reasons for executions. The state should support the sanctity of life, not set precedents for killing.
IRREVOCABLE NATURE OF THE DEATH PENALTY
Unlike other punishments once the death penalty is carried out there is no way to alleviate the results. There can be no pardon, no compensation--nothing can be done to correct the error. This means that those responsible must make infallible decisions with the lives of others. Yet the evidence is strong in every country where the death penalty is used: mistakes are constantly being made. Making these life and death decisions is beyond the scope of any human court. If a mistake is made and an innocent person is executed by the state, then this is a horrific failure of justice. The prisoner is executed by the state in the name of all the people. It is a travesty of justice, and too much of a burden to load on to both the judge and the executioner.
Along with the argument that some people "deserve to die" is the proposition that the state is capable of determining exactly who it should kill. The reality of the death penalty is that no criminal justice system is capable of deciding fairly, consistently and infallibly who should live and who should die.
EXECUTIONS DEGRADE SOCIETY
It is often argued that those who kill should be treated by the state in the same way as the murderers treated their victims. To do this would not only be copying the very crime that society condemns, but allowing murderers and criminals to set the standard for the whole of society. Thus executions carried out by the government lower the moral standard for the whole nation to that of the murderer. Society must uphold the sanctity of life, not imitate the most vile, bloodthirsty crimes.
Lord Chancellor Gardiner said during the 1965 debate on the abolition of the death penalty in the British parliament: "When we abolished the punishment for treason that you should be hanged and then cut down while still alive, then disembowelled while still alive, then quartered [ripping the body into four pieces with horses], we did not abolish that punishment because we sympathised with traitors, but because we took the view that this punishment was no longer consistent with our self respect."
It is not sympathy towards the murderer in wanting to abolish the death penalty; it is because executions are a renunciation of civilization, a renunciation of our concept of humanity. Executions degrade all of us.
To kill someone to show that killing is wrong does not make sense. The moment the state gets involved in killing it establishes that killing is right, and sets a precedent.
It has been shown repeatedly, world wide, that the death penalty does not act as a better deterrent to murder than a long prison term. Most murders are committed in acts of violent rage, the murderer certainly not thinking of what punishment might happen to them in five, ten, or fifteen years time. Many other murders are committed under the influence of alcohol or drugs, with the murderer not concerned about any punishment. A further 14% of murderers (in Australia) either commit suicide immediately or attempt to commit suicide. The death penalty would not deter these crimes.
America (in 1981-82) had a murder rate of 9.4 per 100,000 people, with a majority of states having the death penalty. England (in the same year) had a murder rate of 0.8 per 100,000. That is England had a murder rate approximately one tenth of the USA rate without the use of the death penalty. The murder rate in the USA is similar in states side-by-side, one with the death penalty and one without the death penalty. The death penalty makes little difference either way. America has murder rates far higher than all the European countries, yet none of the Western European countries use the death penalty. It is not the death penalty that lowers crime, but other social and economic factors.
Many people admit that the only reason that they support the death penalty is to get vengeance. But executions do not help the victims, and they do not reduce future murders; executions only create another family of victims. Contemporary standards of justice have rejected the notion that justice can be done by repeating the crimes which society condemns. Vengeance is an emotional reaction, not a well-thought out plan of justice. Killing is wrong no matter who is doing the killing.
A number of people believe it is more humane to kill people than to keep them in prison for a long time. But once this argument is accepted there would be little chance of prisons ever being improved. It's hypocritical to say that we care about a prisoner's welfare and because he's in a poor environment we'll kill him for his own good. If we care about treating prisoners more humanely, we should improve the prisons not kill the prisoners.
In some countries the number of homicides actually declined after abolition of the death penalty. In Canada the murder rate in 1975 was 3.02 murders per 100,000 people. In 1976 the death penalty was abolished, and by 1993 the murder rate had fallen to 2.19 per 100,000 people.
PUBLIC OPINION AND THE DEATH PENALTY IN JAPAN
A government sponsored opinion poll conducted in September 1994 revealed that 74% of those questioned supported the death penalty--while 14% were opposed to its use. But 40% of those who supported the death penalty agreed with abolishing it if circumstances change. This supports a NHK survey which puts abolitionists at 47% and retentionists at 43% if life-imprisonment was introduced as an alternative punishment. The government poll failed to offer those interviewed with any other options, such as life in prison with prisoner earnings going to a victim relief fund.
POLITICAL WILL and POPULARITY
The Japanese government claims that it cannot abolish the death penalty while the public still support it. But in England, France, and Canada, the death penalty was abolished while the public were still in favour of it. For example in Western Germany the death penalty was abolished in 1949 (with the introduction of the new constitution). In 1950 a poll revealed that only 30% of the population were against the death penalty, yet by 1983 the number had increased to 60%. In June 1995, South Africa abolished the death penalty, although according to a poll the majority of people wanted it retained.
If it was found that the public supported torture in prisons, would the government then allow it? And if they did, would that make it proper to use torture? Opinion polls only show what is popular, not what is correct. There is little doubt that if the Japanese government abolished the death penalty and explained the reasons for doing so, the Japanese public would, on the whole, accept the decision.
If society claims that it is evil for a person to kill another out of revenge, then it cannot demand the death of a prisoner out of revenge. A justice system cannot be based on vengeance and hate.
The death penalty is focussing society's attention on killing. It can only teach young people that killing itself is not evil, since it is carried out by the state.
HOW WOULD YOU FEEL ...
Supporters of the death penalty often ask those who are opposed to executions: 'How would you feel if one of your close relatives were murdered? Wouldn't you want the death penalty for the killer?' Maybe. But another person who strongly believed in the death penalty, might change their mind and oppose it if they discovered their son or daughter was on death row. That argument works either way. Of course no one could know with certainty how they would react under either of those circumstances. But society has recognised that victims of crime should be the last people to decide the penalty because of their strong emotional reaction to the crime. Laws have recognised that it is essential for the judge to be impartial and just in sentencing, and to separate justice from revenge. It is understandable that a relative of someone murdered, or perhaps killed through drunken driving, would want the death penalty. But that would not make it right---it would probably be an emotional response, not an impartial judgement.
There are many cases of people who were opposed to the death penalty and retained this belief after loved ones were murdered. In the USA there is a group of these people now opposing executions. Kerry Kennedy (the daughter of Robert Kennedy): "I was eight years old when my father was murdered, and I remember praying, 'Please God, please don't let them kill the man who killed my father.' I didn't want another person--any person--to die. And I didn't want another family--any family--to experience the grief that my family was experiencing." There are many other cases of people not wanting revenge, but one remarkable case is about a woman who desperately wanted revenge.
Dorothy Morefield's son Nick was 19 when he was brutally murdered in cold blood. When they arrested Nick's killer--Dorothy Morefield felt a tremendous physical pain of grief. The pain turned into pure, white hatred and frightened her because it was unnatural. "I had not felt hatred like this before and it was truly a sense of being burnt up. "At that time I wanted to hurt the killer as he had hurt me; I would have liked him dead and I didn't care how or where. My feelings at that time would have certainly permitted the death penalty. They could have marched him out and shot him at high noon and I would have cheered."
A few months after Nick's death she woke up one morning consumed with rage, with burning hatred, her first thoughts were not of her family, but of the murderer. "It was unbearable. My son was gone, my husband and I were hanging together by a thread, each living with our own anguish, unable to find a place to help one another. My other five children were suffering dreadfully over Nick and needed my comfort, but all my emotions, my energy, my feelings were going into the rage I felt towards the killer. That morning, when he was the first thing to enter my mind, I thought: 'My Lord, what is happening. I am thinking more about the murderer than about Nick. He has taken my son from me and now he is taking my sanity.' "The day I realised the killer was filling more of my thoughts than Nick was, the day I saw that I could not put anything into my life with a husband I love, with my remaining children who are also very, very precious, the day I felt I could easily live for the rest of my time full of hate, were the days I knew the death penalty which encourages us to seek a very primitive revenge, to reduce ourselves to the level of killers too, was not the right way. I cannot feel compassion for Nick's killer; I don't think I shall ever forgive him, but I also know that his death will not alter any part of the loss I feel for my son.
"The bottom line argument for execution has always been that society owes it to the victims. But my experience and that of many, many others I have counselled, is that the belief we may be able, on a very personal one to one basis, to have the person who has hurt us hurt equally, keeps us locked into a desperately destructive, bitterly painful situation. You can spend years waiting for somebody to be executed, years spent with all your emotional energy directed towards the murderer rather than rebuilding life."
Concern for the victims of crime must not be used to justify the deliberate taking of a prisoner's life by the state. The state should be concerning itself with caring for the victims rather than offering to take another life in return. The execution of a murderer will not replace the life of the loved one they have lost.
Murderers rarely think of any punishment. Most murders are committed in acts of rage, the murderer certainly not thinking of what punishment might happen to him in a years time. Many other murders are committed under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the murderer totally unconcerned about any punishment. Wallace's study (NSW 1988) revealed that: Homicide is a spontaneous rather than a premeditated crime. Fourteen percent of murderers (in Australia) either commit suicide immediately or attempt to commit suicide. A small number of murderers plan their murders carefully, or hire someone else to do the job, these murderers do not believe they will ever be caught for their crime. If they thought they would be caught they would not carry it out, no matter what the penalty. The greatest deterrent is the fear of being caught.
Taking another life can never balance anything; it can only add to the amount of killing. It cannot bring the victim back to life. But it is capable of creating a new set of innocent victims: the parents or children of the person executed.
SHOULDN'T WE EXECUTE WHEN WE ARE ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN OF GUILT?
Even when there is no doubt about guilt--and there is almost always some doubt--it can never be right for the government to kill people. The government should not hold the power of life and death over its citizens, like a Roman caesar. No one has the right to kill another person. It is hypocritical for the state to copy the very crime that society condemns as the most evil. There is also the problem of inequality; which circumstances will make one murder a death penalty case, and another murder a long prison term? Who will live and who will die? There is the problem of people either willingly, or forcibly making false confessions. And finally, there is the disgrace of executions degrading our society to the level of the murderer.
WHAT ARE THE ALTERNATIVES TO THE DEATH PENALTY?
Amnesty International does not advocate alternative punishments, this is left up to society and the courts. But one alternative is a life sentence without the possibility of parole, or a 99 year sentence. A life sentence without possibility of parole has much wider support, including support from many people who are opposed to the death penalty.
Killing is the problem, not the solution.
A life sentence without possibility of parole has much wider support, including support from many people who are opposed to the death penalty.
EVERY ONE WHO TAKES A LIFE SHOULD LOSE THEIRS: AN EYE FOR AN EYE
But that means EVERYONE who takes a life should be executed. And this is something that no one seems to want. Most cases of murder are of family members killing each other. For example: a girl is sexually abused and regularly bashed by her father for a number of years; one night she stabs him to death while he is a sleep--should she also be executed because she has taken a life? An eye for an eye, a life for a life. Most people who want the death penalty do not want that situation. Unfortunately the relatives and friends will suffer all their lives whether or not the murderer is executed, they will suffer because the victims cannot be restored to life no matter what punishment is carried out. If a pedestrian is killed in a car accident, executing the driver of the car will not compensate for the person killed, nor will it return anyone to life, it will just create another family of victims.
TERRORISM AND POLITICAL VIOLENCE
For men and women prepared to sacrifice their lives for their beliefs, the prospect of their execution is unlikely to deter and may even serve as an incentive. Officials responsible for fighting such crimes have repeatedly pointed out, executions are as likely to increase acts of terror as to stop them. Executions create martyrs whose memory becomes a rallying point for their organisations.
In December 1994 two prisoners were executed in the Tokyo Detention Centre. Within four months (20 March 1995) the Tokyo subway gas attack took place. This shows the failure of the death penalty to deter terrorism.
The death penalty gives a false sense of security, focusing on the punishment after the crime has occurred, rather than prevention. The death penalty is hardly likely to deter terrorists who are generally fanatics with scant regard for their own lives. Indeed many terrorists see themselves as martyrs, and would welcome execution as a means to drawing publicity to their cause.
IS THE DEATH PENALTY NEEDED TO STOP DRUG TRAFFICKING?
The death penalty does not frighten drug traffickers; why would it concern them when they face death at the hands of their rival drug dealers every day--death without trial, without a judge, and without warning. Responding to the drug menace, 24 countries have made drug related offences punishable by death. Malaysia's anti-drug drive made international headlines in the early 1980's when the death penalty was made mandatory for drug trafficking. By June 1990 104 had been hanged with a further 200 awaiting execution. Yet during the three years after mandatory death sentences the number of registered addicts climbed by 30%. In June 1990 the Deputy Minister of Home Affairs said that the country's mandatory death penalty for drug addiction had failed to curb either the trade or drug abuse and that a new approach to the problem was needed.
The deputy director of Malaysia's anti-narcotics force said the mandatory death sentences had not shown signs of fulfilling its role as a deterrent in the 6 years since its enforcement. Instead the number of people detained for trafficking had increased and those detained were easily replaced by other traffickers within a short time. "Our intelligence shows that people were found to be trafficking in drugs even when a member of their family has been charged and awaiting trial." One affect is that the death penalty makes trafficking more risky, but at the same time increases the profits for the traffickers. The International Conference on Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking (held in 1987) recommended measures as the prevention and reduction of demand through education and control of drug abuse in the workplace, improved programs for the treatment of addicts, and disruption of major trafficking networks through controls over ships, aircraft and surveillance of borders.
The death penalty was not among the many measures proposed to curb the drug trade. The Malaysian Ministry of Health said in 1993 that another 24,000 people became drug addicts during that year, most of them heroin users. It was an 11% increase over the previous year.
DEVELOPMENT OF HUMAN RIGHTS
The evolution of human rights is a long process. In England by 1819 the number of offences punishable by death had fallen to 220, it continued to decline as enlightenment and knowledge crept forward. In 1823 Robert Peel, the Home Secretary, started the process towards restricting the death penalty. As no sudden upsurge of violence resulted the death penalty was progressively reduced until by 1861 it was confined in practice to murder and treason. But it took until 1973 before it was abolished for ordinary crimes.
IS THE USE OF THE DEATH PENALTY ACCEPTED WORLD WIDE?
The United States is the only Industrialised Western country still carrying out executions (1995). And even here the death penalty is banned in 12 states. Since 1976 just four (southern) American states have carried out approximately 80% of all executions.
The death penalty has now been abolished in law or practice in 50.5 % of the countries of the world, with more than two countries abolishing each year since 1976. The European parliament has repeatedly declared that the death penalty violates human rights. The abolition of the death penalty has become an implicit condition of membership of the European Community. "The parliamentary body of the 32-member Council of Europe has called for the creation of a treaty to abolish the death penalty for all crimes. "The request came in the form of a recommendation adopted by the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly on 4 Oct 1994. The recommendation now goes to the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers for action. The United Nations has endorsed the goal of worldwide abolition of the death penalty. And there has been steady movement towards this goal, affirming respect for human life and dignity. Just as slavery was abolished and is now looked on with disgust, so too will the death penalty be abolished.