Recent events have caused me to reflect on things, one of those things is the death penalty. Those who’ve known me for a long time know that I’ve been a fairly active member of Amnesty International for a long time. Anyone who knows Amnesty’s work well will know that they are opposed to the death penalty. Does this mean that I am also opposed to the death penalty? As a matter of fact, I am, but it was by no means an automatic following of Amnesty stance that led me to oppose the death penalty.
In my younger days, I was considerably more conservative than I am now on certain things. I believed that if you were poor, it was probably because you were lazy, if you were in jail, you probably did something very bad, and if you were on death row, then you probably killed someone. Wait, that’s not quite true – go through that last sentence and take out all instances of the word “probably”.
In the bubble I grew up in, you had to be very lazy to be poor (and even then, poverty was not guaranteed). I didn’t even know anyone who went to jail, that was something that happened to other people. But those bubbles burst, and your horizons expand, and you realize that there’s a lot more to it than that. You eventually insert the word “probably” into those sentences, then you realize the implications of a world where not everything is clear-cut, black-and-white.
Consider the fallibility of the justice system. Nobody likes to admit that they’ve made a mistake, but that doesn’t mean we should pretend that it never happens. When I was in high school, I acted in a play called “Twelve Angry Men” which, you might have guessed, is about a jury deliberating on the innocence or guilt of a man accused of murder. Two films have been made of the play, but the superior of the two is the black-and-white 1957 version.1 I encourage all of you to go watch it. The play begins with a vote of 11-1 in favour of “guilty”, and as the discussion develops, inconsistencies are found in the evidence, prejudices are found in the jurors, and slowly but surely reasonable doubt wins the day, and they vote for acquittal. This probably doesn’t happen every day, and I think part of the point of the play is to show how easy it is for a jury to make a wrong decision. The point is that it is not so hard to imagine that an innocent person might be convicted, even with the allowance of “reasonable doubt”.
these developments cast a dark shadow of doubt over the conviction which I believe goes a long way past “reasonable”
The recent example of Troy Anthony Davis (pictured) is a good one. He was convicted of murder mostly because of eyewitness testimony. There was nothing else to link him to the murder. No murder weapon was ever found. Since the trial, seven out of nine eyewitnesses have either changed or recanted their testimony. Now, I don’t think he’s guilty, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that these developments cast a dark shadow of doubt over the conviction which I believe goes a long way past “reasonable”. In a flawed system, there is always a chance of punishing an innocent man, and the death penalty is irreversible.
How many innocent people are wrongfully punished? One for every ten guilty? Maybe one for every hundred? There probably is some ratio that society would deem to be “acceptable”, and I should hope that it is very high. However, when it comes to final and irreversible punishments, we could simply avoid it ever happening by abolishing the death penalty.
But what about the guilty ones? On the same day that Troy Davis was executed, another man named Lawrence Brewer was also put to death. His crime was the murder of a black man by chaining him to the back of a truck and dragging him until the body was so disfigured, that it was mistaken for road kill. In this case, he was convicted using DNA evidence which matched blood found on him to the blood of the victim. Surely people like this deserve to die?
Maybe they do, but it is not for us to decide. It is not the role of a state to kill people. The whole point of the law is to protect people, to guarantee our equality and freedom. Killing someone achieves none of those aims. Removing a dangerous individual from society can be accomplished just as easily with imprisonment. I believe the real reason we seem so keen on killing people is that we feel a need to satiate our desire for revenge. It is dangerous, and quite barbaric for a society to give into those feelings.
“…this is the point where I would have to abandon my support for the death penalty – it simply doesn’t work”
Maybe the death penalty could act as a deterrent. If this was the case, we would see a significantly lower incidence of violent crime in places where the death penalty is practiced when compared to similar places where it is not. If I really wanted to believe in the death penalty, if I really wanted to ignore all the wishy-washy philosophical and moral arguments about why it is wrong for the state to kill people, and concentrate on the facts, then this is the point where I would have to abandon my support for the death penalty – it simply doesn’t work.
Curiously, and counterintuitively enough, places that still practice the death penalty have a significantly higher incidence of violent crime than places that don’t. I don’t know why, but I can hazard a guess. If the state thinks it’s ok to kill people, then that sends a message to the population. People probably don’t even realize it on a conscious level, but the message probably goes something like “it’s ok to solve problems by killing people”. It certainly doesn’t act as a deterrent.
So we have a form of punishment that is irreversible, brutal, and final. There is always the chance that you accidentally punish someone who is innocent. In terms of protecting the rest of the population, it can be easily substituted. And to top it all off, it doesn’t even work as a deterrent. I understand that it used to be very common during medieval times (as was torture, but that’s another article), and maybe it worked back then, though I doubt it. It’s about time we pulled ourselves out of the dark ages and abolished this barbaric practice worldwide, once and for all, because it doesn’t belong here. We’ve gone to the moon, and we’ve sent probes to take our curiosity beyond the farthest reaches of our own solar system, yet we still have capital punishment… wtf mate?
- “black-and-white” in this instance refers to the lack of colour, rather than moral absolutism. For the record, the film also has a lot of grey in it ↩