When I was a child I watched programmes like most other children did about good and bad; justice and injustice. The good guys always won, which sometimes made me wish for a programme, where just every once in a while the bad guys would win at least briefly. You would see the bad guys being incarcerated and the good guys being seen as heroes.
As I grew older I began to become more interested in the actual meting out of the justice. After the mother of the owner of a school uniform shop that I purchased my high school uniform from (and Mum says also my intermediate school uniform), was attacked in broad daylight, there was palpable anger at my school. Students were debating what to do with the offender if he got caught. All were in support of a long spell in jail. Some also wanted to make the offender attend a restorative justice programme.
And a few wanted the death penalty (capital punishment).
By the time I left high school I was of the opinion that the death penalty was a good thing, that there are people who need to be put to death because of the extreme nature of their crimes – terrorists; mass murderers; treasonists. To me the death penalty was to be the last resort, or for crimes so severe a jail term would not suffice.
But in 2004, I had a sea change on the death penalty. One day my Amnesty International group at the University of Canterbury had a free screening of Dead Man walking, about a convicted murderer in the United States who is sentenced to death. A Sister acts as spiritual guidance for the convicted man, and meets with the families of the victims. She agrees to help file an appeal and get his sentence commuted. After it fails, she tells the condemned that the only way to redemption is to show remorse. He admits culpability.
The film made me start to question the viability of the death penalty. It made me start to do research around the individual methods and find out about the cost of administering it, and how well justice is actually dispensed.
There is no justification for murder. But there is not justification for “an eye for an eye” type justice where one must die in order for the other to have justice. Very often the case against the condemned person is flawed and not beyond reasonable doubt. As this is an essential threshhold in determining culpability, the accused should not be found guilty, let alone condemned to death. Sometimes the condemned are found to have mental stability issues, and in some cases known to Amnesty, are not actually able to comprehend what they have done.
First world nations have the money and the economic resources to develop non lethal methods of inflicting justice. Third world nations do not necessarily have the money or the resources. That does not justify their use of the death penalty any more than it does in a third world country. And it certainly does not justify the gruesome methods – stoning, beheading, lashes, among others that are applied. Iran and China are the leading employers of the death penalty, with 977+ and 2,000+ respectively known to have been executed. Many did not have fair trials and in many cases confessions were made under duress.
But the case against the death penalty goes deeper than this. To be effective, the methods of execution in carrying out the death penalty, must be able to kill within seconds or a couple of minutes maximum. Evidence suggests to the contrary:
- Execution by firing squad is typically carried out by a number of people pointing rifles at the condemned person, but only one gun will have a live round in it – if the round fails to kill, then the condemned person may suffer barbaric injury
- Execution by the electric chair was stopped because aside from being an unusual and cruel way to inflict the execution, if the chair had an electrical fault, the executioner could be liable for torture
- Execution by lethal injection is dependent on the drugs being administered being able to do their job – typically one induces unconsciousness, the second shuts down the breathing and the third stops the heart which is something that has not always gone to plan and the condemned is still alive, albeit seriously ill
- Execution by hanging
In essence the death penalty is a barbaric form of justice that makes the countries that use it no better than third world despots (though as mentioned, no first world countries use lashes, stonings or beheadings). New Zealand is right to not have it on our books, and any move to reinstate it would be a massive leap backwards.