Capital Punishment: Myth and Reality

There is a general outcry in public opinion about such heinous recurrent crimes being committed these days in our midst. A large number of people are clamouring for death penalty as a sort of vengeance against ruthless criminals. Our society is going through a critical time. Is it sick? Have we lost our spiritual values at the expense of materialism? What is ailing our country? Is it going to the dogs? So many questions perturb us in our quest for a good living on this island.

Let us analyse the pros and cons of capital punishment.

Punishments can be categorized in three types: retributive, deterrent and reformative. Retributive justice award death sentence and this is Mosaic Law of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. The criminal was considered as a person who has wilfully committed a crime and thus outraged his social group by wilfully opting out of it, and it was then believed that he should therefore forfeit his life. The criminal was a misfit in society and became a danger to others. Deterrent punishment aims at preventing a person from committing crimes by imprisoning him in jails. Death sentence, awarded to a criminal, will, it is believed, act as a deterrent punishment. It will be a lesson to others. Other citizens will be deterred from committing crime. They will think twice before killing a person. At least they will calculate the probable costs of their actions.

There is a school of thought that believes that the individual is not to be blamed for the crime he commits because he is not born a criminal but made to be a criminal, he is a product of his environment and the system of education which has moulded him. The concept of reformative punishment comes to the forefront in this case. It is the duty of the state to see that instead of ‘’eliminating’’ him from society, the criminal is reformed and turned into a good citizen. A large segment of people oppose death sentence under this line of reasoning. They believe that the death sentence is not only sorely retributive but militates also against human freedom and dignity. But the question is that the prison system has unfortunately reformed no one. Once a criminal, he will remain a criminal. It will be hard for him to be retrieved and placed on the road of redemption. They say that for how long can the state, nay the taxpayers, pay for his livelihood? If he has committed a crime therefore his life must be forfeited, they believe. The killer has absolutely no right under any circumstances to deprive another of his life and ruin his family.

Ours is a civilized world and the law of the jungle is something of the past. Those born with criminal inclinations and those with no respect for human life and its sanctity or law and order should have no place in our society to live in the midst of law-abiding and peace-loving citizens. The non-abolitionists of the death penalty raise an important point here: how would you react if one of your loved ones is being butchered and his corpse thrown down an abyss in a dense forest? The debate generates much passion.

Opinions are sharply divided over the question of whether or not the abolition of death penalty. The abolitionists argue that this punishment is retributive and not reformative and is most degrading to human dignity. They come forward with the argument that ‘homicide is heinous; so is hanging’ Are we going to legalise murder? This is ‘judicial murder’. The second murder, in the name of justice, is more reprehensible because it is sanctioned and is executed with ceremony by the state. For the abolitionists, the vindictive impulses of society should not be accorded legal sanction.

There are also inherent dangers in awarding the death penalty. A person accused of murder may be innocent but owing to fabrication or falsification or misreading of evidence, incompetence or amateurishness of police investigators, circumstantial or otherwise, he may end up being sentenced to death. In so many cases across the world we have seen that there has been miscarriage of justice, the cancer of judicial system, which has led to the death of innocents at the gallows. This is in spite of the legal maxim that even if 99 out of 100 guilty persons are acquitted not even one innocent person should be punished.

The abolitionists of death penalty propound that a criminal condemned to death could have committed the crime under mitigating circumstances such as insanity, provocation and self-defence .Yet another argument against the death penalty is that the threat of death penalty has not acted as deterrent and crime rates, including rapes and cold blooded murder, have not decreased. In USA, certain states which have abolished capital punishment have had the same homicidal rate as those that retained it. Finally, it is argued that no one has the right to take away the life of another person, even a murderer’s.

Man’s attitude towards crime and criminals has changed. Developments in knowledge of human behaviour has made capital punishment anachronistic. Many share the opinion of Albert Camus who in his ‘Reflections on the Guillotine’ wrote that capital punishment is spiritually obsolete. The concept of an eye for eye is repugnant to morality. Revenge should not be the basis of punishment. Abolitionists of the death penalty reckon retribution as a form of retaliation: a payment that society exacts from the offender.

Those who support the retention of capital punishment argue that if a murder is committed ‘with malice aforethought’ or, in common jargon, cold – bloodedly, there is no fitting punishment than a death sentence. Those born with criminal impulses according to them should be discarded and society has to be shielded from such dangerous elements. As against the argument that death penalty smacks of vengeance it is pointed out that a criminal is sentenced to death after a long deliberation in a law court and it is proved beyond reasonable doubt that he is guilty of murder. Abhorrence must find its objective expression in law so long as the normal conscience of man regards cold-blooded murder with abhorrence. The debate must be carried out dispassionately. There is too much passion and anger in the air. The writing for the thirst for vengeance is on the walls especially when crimes of such atrocity beyond imagination are committed in such short lapses of time on our paradise island .Yet another argument that is advanced against death penalty is that a murderer is a source of danger to society as he has lost his moral scruple, that his conscience has been blunted and that death should be imposed on him not so much as punishment but as a merciful release from life.

Whether or not capital punishment should be restored is indeed a vexing question. But one thing is certain: indiscriminate imposition of death penalty is bad. So many countries have since long abolished it as they are fully convinced that capital punishment is a relic from a barbarian past. It goes against Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They believe in human rights. There is the impending apprehension that the government could give way to mounting pressure from the streets and restore death penalty. It will be like going back to the medieval age, according to abolitionists. Between these extreme views of the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists is the view that capital punishment should be meted out only in extreme cases. Crime, whatever form it takes, should be condemned. This is a debate that generates much heat. In India the question was argued with a great sense of urgency for thirty years without result. Capital punishment will persist in certain places and its persistence in a civilized society may be considered a necessity by its advocates.

* Published in print edition on 4 March 2015 

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