October 2021 marked the 40th anniversary of the abolition of the death penalty in France. It was a significant milestone in the country’s history that transformed the legal justice system and generated a lot of public interest and debate in France and elsewhere in the world. This topic continues to attract significant attention, as most countries that have banned the death penalty did so just recently. There are also many countries that still uphold the death sentence, with many more having a moratorium on capital punishment rather than an outright ban.
Public opinion on this matter is significantly divided. It is estimated that about half of the people globally support capital punishment and consider it an acceptable and necessary penalty for grave crimes. Proponents of the death sentence believe that abolishing it will be relinquishing an effective deterrent to serious crime. However, those opposed to it argue that the death penalty is an inhuman act, which effectively turns those administering it into murderers, like the criminals whom they may be seeking to punish for the same crime. They see it as an act that undermines the principles of civility and justice, and therefore cannot be part of a progressive society. Both sides have compelling and logical arguments.
Supporters of the death penalty highlight that it is only applicable to serious crimes that are deserving of severe punishment. Indeed, it could be reasonably argued that the death sentence is a proportionate penalty for such crimes as murder or terrorist attack, considering the graveness of harm caused to victims. A common argument by this group is a statement like: “Imagine the victim was your loved one. Would you still insist that capital punishment is too harsh?”
In addition, judicial records show a shocking number of precedents where criminals convicted of serious crimes were handed jail sentences of between 15 and 20 years, applied for amnesty or parole and were released after serving just five years or so, which is certainly disproportionate to the harm the convicts caused by murdering their victims and ruining the lives of victims’ families.
Many convicts are also likely to revert to their criminal ways on being set free. Sometimes, the lenient sentences only serve to embolden them because the legal consequences are not prohibitive. As such, shouldn’t the rights of innocent victims not outweigh that of criminals who have voluntarily chosen to cause heinous harm like rape, child molestation, murder, or terrorist act?
Speaking of which, recent terror attacks have led to a reappraisal of the stand on the death penalty, with many people who may have been originally opposed to it now willing to give their approval. The justification for this change of heart is the logical reasoning underscored by the question: “How else can we deal with perpetrators of such terrifying crimes against humanity, criminals who will continue to inflict abominable harm at every opportunity?”
However, the other side of the coin that is advanced by opponents of the death penalty emphasizes the fact that sentences don’t have to be classified as either minimum or death penalty. There is no doubt that the punishment for serious crimes should be befittingly severe. For instance, a life sentence in an isolation cell with no option of amnesty or parole is not less punitive than a death sentence and is probably even harsher. The difference though is that, unlike the death penalty, it does not make murderers out of judges and executioners. Legally-sanctioned killing is still killing. It still takes life and chips away at the humanity of those who sanction it and could result in a never-ending cycle of violence and hatred. Meting out this punishment against offenders is not the best way to honor the victims of their crime.
Then there are the psychological effects on judges who mete out capital punishment, the executioners who carry out the orders, and prison staff who walk death row inmates to the gallows. The psychological effects on these people and their families, including those of the victims and the criminals, cannot be ignored. Though the death penalty may seem as meting out justice, it has a dark psychological side that could be hard to escape from.
Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights that prohibits “torture or… inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” was ratified for two main reasons: i) to protect everyone, regardless of who they are, from “inhuman treatment”; and ii) to protect people from losing their humanity through the enforcement of such inhuman treatment. Considering how long humanity has struggled and fought for a society that upholds the principles of civilized justice and humane treatment; it will be unfortunate to throw all that away and turn decent people into killers, all in the name of punishing criminals.
According to statistics from the Death Penalty Information Center, the murder rate in countries that uphold the death penalty is not lower than that in countries where capital punishment is banned. This means that the death penalty in and of itself is not a deterrent. In any case, most offenders commit crimes believing that they will not be caught, hence the idea of possible punishment is not restrictive enough.
It is also worth noting that no legal system is free of mistakes: cases of miscarriage of justice take place very often. The number of people who have been found ‘guilty’ of crimes they did not commit is staggering. Such mistakes could be a result of negligence during investigation, human error or just being unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If these people are handed a life sentence, they still have a chance to prove their innocence through appeals or if the truth eventually comes to light. However, should they be executed, the door to the restoration of justice would have been permanently closed. Their wrongful executions will indeed amount to murder, thrusting their families in the same state as that of the victims whom they may have been accused of killing. This will just serve to perpetuate a cycle of hatred and undermine the legal justice system.
If history is anything to go by, cases abound of government officials abusing the death penalty provision to get rid of political opponents. In Russia, for instance, opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny has been imprisoned for political reasons. His case is familiar to those of Yegor Zhukov and Ivan Golunov, who were sentenced for expressing political opinions that were inconvenient for the ruling authorities. Fortunately, Russia has a moratorium on the death penalty, but the fabricated charges are sufficient to keep the perceived enemies behind bars. Imagine however what could happen to dissidents in countries with the death penalty, or if an authoritarian regime restores capital punishment and targets the opposition.
Just as important, we need to be wary of turning convicts into martyrs. Executing a murderer could sometimes turn them into heroes of sorts, with people choosing to remember their executions instead of their series of crimes. This has also been manifested in the execution of famous political leaders (even the most despotic ones) by spurring their supporters to organize acts of “revenge”. The bottom line is that a murderer does not deserve the status of a martyr, just as the judicial system should not be reduced to the status of a “killer”.
In summary, the argument that grave crimes should be punished proportionately is reasonable and valid. However, we should not stoop to the level of murderers in the name of meting out commensurate punishment. A life sentence with no option of parole or amnesty is an effective punishment for serious crimes. It is severe enough to effectually penalize serious offenders without sanctioning retaliatory killing, violence and inhuman treatment. It leaves a chance to restoration of justice in case of wrongful sentencing and shields society from the abuse of capital punishment by those in authority.