In 1652 a Swiss washerwoman, Michée Chauderon, was arrested after the Devil visited her in the form of a shadow and, during intercourse, left a small mark under her breast and another on her thigh. Prosecutors determined that if these marks produced no blood after being pierced with a needle this would be proof she had relinquished God. Chauderon winced in pain when they pricked her chest, and blood did flow. It looked as though she might be innocent. The court ordered further interrogations, and when the mark on the thigh produced no blood, she was tortured, until finally she told the truth – yes, she had let the shadow defile her, and she had made a pact with the Devil in exchange for promises of wealth. She was burnt at the stake in Geneva.
Australians don’t think about the death penalty very often. That’s not so surprising: the last person hanged here was Ronald Ryan, back in 1967. For most of us, capital punishment belongs to a different time, a time of archaic beliefs and superstitions, when justice was corporeal and pain could purify the transgressor. Breaking on the wheel, impalement, boiling in oil, slow slicing, burning at the stake, flaying alive, and hanging, drawing and quartering – all are unimaginable acts of torture and killing we associate with the Middle Ages, yet they persisted in post-Enlightenment Europe, especially in the colonies. Even the United States used the breaking wheel during the period when slavery was legal.
Capital punishment sits uneasily with the values of the modern state, whose aim is to maximise the potential of every individual for the benefit of the state as a whole (hence public health, compulsory education, institutions to support markets, reformist justice, and so on). In this era, new designs and technologies – guillotines, electric chairs, gas chambers and lethal injections – were used to make killing more efficient and, proponents argued, less cruel.
When Australians are reminded of the death penalty now, and in a way that occupies the thoughts of a good chunk of the nation, it’s usually because an Australian citizen has been sentenced to death for breaking the laws of a country that still uses capital punishment in its justice system. The most recent victim was twenty-five-year-old Van Tuong Nguyen, hanged in Changi Prison, Singapore, on 2 December 2005.
The coverage of the plight of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in Indonesia has reminded us again about a feature of some legal systems that we don’t usually have to think about. We tend to feel that this kind of punishment will eventually melt away, as it has in Australia. But at times like this, when we stop to think deeply about people facing death at the hands of the state – when we think about Chan and Sukumaran lined up on that island – progress doesn’t seem fast enough.
The death penalty will disappear. And, if you take a historical view, it’s happening fast. Enlightenment thinkers argued for reform of the judicial and penal system based on reason, articulating the basis of secular, inviolate rights, and among them one of the most influential was the early Milanese criminologist Cesare Beccaria. In 1764 he published his treatise On Crimes and Punishments, which was reprinted frequently and translated into many languages. Beccaria argued that punishment should be proportional to the crime, and that no state had the authority to torture or take another person’s life. His ideas shaped reforms throughout Europe and in the United States.
Twenty years after the book’s publication, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany abolished the death penalty. In 1826, Swiss philanthropist Jean-Jacques de Sellon held an international competition for an essay on the subject of abolition. Only a century and a half before, his country had been burning witches. In the United States, the state of Michigan abolished the death penalty in 1847, and Wisconsin followed in 1853. Venezuela, Greece and Portugal soon followed, and by the late 1800s there are too many others to list here.
Australia had its own abolitionists – people like David McLaren, a Scottish-born banker who managed the South Australian Co. in Adelaide. On a Thursday evening in mid December 1840, McLaren gave a lecture, “On the Abolition of Capital Punishments,” at the Literary and Scientific Association and Mechanics’ Institute in Adelaide. Only forty years earlier, he reminded his audience, capital crimes had included sheep stealing, theft from a shop of goods worth more than five shillings, and theft from a person’s pocket above the value of one shilling. “Long-continued and laborious efforts” saw the penalty in these cases purged from the criminal code, McLaren told his audience. The public now “revolts against the judicial deprivation of life,” he added, except in cases of murder, “a mighty improvement effected in the course of a generation.”
Even at that time, much of the public had come to realise that “long and lamentable experience” had shown that the death penalty was “altogether ineffectual” as a deterrent. All it accomplished, he said, was to diminish the sanctity of life and risk brutalising members of the public, continuing a cycle of violence. McLaren ended his lecture by circulating a petition on the subject addressed to Queen Victoria.
The move towards a global acceptance of abolition began, of course, with the formation of the United Nations in 1945 and its commitment to defining and safeguarding human rights. Smaller nations that had already stopped using capital punishment took the lead in pushing for reform. In 1957, the United Nations’ Third Committee (the one responsible for human rights) began debating Article 6 of the Draft Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (the one about the right to life), with the United Kingdom, the United States and Russia arguing over wording that would still allow a state to use capital punishment in some circumstances.
The Uruguayan delegation, with the support of the Columbians, proposed an amendment to prohibit the taking of life under any circumstances. The delegation’s spokesperson, Adolfo Tejera, pointed out the irony of a UN committee defining cases in which it would be acceptable for a state to take the life of another human being. Drop the article altogether, they argued, and replace it with something simpler – nothing can justify the death penalty. The big powers defeated the amendment, but it was the beginning of a continuing effort to have the death penalty banned in international law, an endeavour that has attracted increasing support among member nations over the years. The most recent efforts have been led by Italy and New Zealand. The majority of the world’s countries have abolished or abandoned use of capital punishment, and the United Nations continues to work towards the goal of worldwide abolition.
I’m no expert on the death penalty, but I’ve been appalled and horrified by the idea of it since I was a little kid, allowed to watch movies I’d never let my own kids see. To my young mind, governments were at the peak of a long line of authorities that started with parents and school teachers. They possess all the power, and they have the monopoly on violence, but they are also supposed to be the most responsible, to lead by example, to protect and care, to be better than our individual fears and failings and emotional extremes, to represent the best in humanity, to serve as the epitome of our collective ideals. Orchestrated, deliberate group violence shocked me.
Over the last 300 or so years, abolitionists have often described capital punishment as an anachronism, as if, in the march of progress, the abandonment of the death penalty will be a given. It doesn’t work that way. The United States and Japan are advanced democracies, powerful global leaders, yet both countries retain the death penalty. Some states have abolished it only to reinstate it later. ISIS militants have set up a tribunal system to deal with everything from petty civil disputes to crimes they deem to be the most serious, such as murder, rape and being an enemy of their “state.” Capital punishment is part of their tribunal system, and they have resurrected the spectacle and theatre of the death penalty, broadening the idea of a public execution to a global audience.
World leaders have denounced ISIS’s gruesome acts, as they should. But we shouldn’t get to choose which sorts of orchestrated public or group-sanctioned violence are acceptable. Burning someone alive in a cage is likely to be more painful for the victim than shooting him or her in the chest, but both are wrong. There are better options for dealing with crime in leading democracies such as the United States, Japan and Indonesia.
The death penalty isn’t going to disappear all on its own as we become more “civilised.” Where it has been abolished it’s been the result of determined political struggle. Those who oppose capital punishment, overall, are succeeding in their cause.
If anything positive were to come out of the bleak events unfolding in Indonesia, it would be a renewed interest among politicians, diplomats and the public in working with other abolitionist countries to put an end to capital punishment. These processes will seem slow to us, but they will grind on, and things will change.
In his book Bury the Chains, historian Adam Hochschild reminds us how a small group of people challenged slavery in the late 1700s. They saw it as an urgent problem and felt it was taking far too long to make any difference, yet less than a century elapsed between their first organised protests and the formal act of abolition, a remarkably rapid transformation.
European Australia started off as a military outpost with floggings, hangings, and massacres of Aboriginal people. My parent’s generation was alive at the time of Australia’s last execution. That kind of act is so far from our minds that we don’t think about it, and when we’re reminded it still occurs, most of us are dismayed.
You might be surprised to learn that it wasn’t until 2010 that the federal government prohibited the death penalty in all states and territories, making it extremely unlikely any of them could reintroduce it. From this perspective, we’re really just at the beginning of the abolitionist struggle. The end of the death penalty is inevitable because the abolitionists have the resolve and the momentum, but we need to keep up the pressure. •
Example Persuasive Paper on the Death Penalty
Death penalty has been an inalienable part of human society and its legal system for centuries, regarded as a necessary deterrent to dangerous crimes and a way to liberate the community from dangerous criminals. However, later on this type of punishment came to be regarded as a crime against humanistic ideals by many, and its validity in the legal system has been questioned. Until now, the debate rages on. This resulted in a wide discrepancy of laws on this issue. Some nations including China, the US, Iran, Belarus, and others preserve the death penalty as an option, while others like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and almost all European nations have abolished capital punishment. Still others keep the norm in their legislations, but have de facto suspended execution of criminals sentenced to capital punishment. This paper will seek to prove that death penalty has to be preserved as a valid means of prevention serious crimes. It will examine the effect of death penalty on society and its relevance to the protection of interests of common citizens.
The history of death penalty is almost as old as the history of mankind. Various means of capital punishment involved burning, hanging, drowning, crucifixion, breaking on the will, boiling to death, electrocution, firing squad, gassing - the list can be continued. The choice of a particular method in Europe in the Middle Age, for instance, depended on the social status of the condemned. Painless and respectable ways were reserved for the aristocracy; and more painful for the common people, such as hanging or breaking on the wheel. In other cases, the choice of the method was warranted by the time of crime: witches and heretics had to be burned at the stake. Capital punishment was envisaged for a broad array of crimes, “including robbery and theft, even if nobody was physically harmed in the action” (Wikipedia). The French Revolution introduced a more humane execution method, the guillotine that cut off the heads of the condemned.
The first decision to abolish capital punishment was made by the Grand Duke Leopold II of Habsburg in Granducato di Toscana (Tuscany) on 30 November 1786. The duke cancelled the penalty and ordered to destroy all the instruments of murder in his nation after being influenced by the book the Italian Cesare Beccaria Dei Delitti e Delle Pene "On Crimes and Punishments". The anniversary of the decree is since 2000 celebrated as a holiday in Tuscany.
In 2004, as reports Amnesty International, 3,797 people in 25 nations were executed. China accounts for the bulk of these executions - 3,400 cases. Kuwait is the leader in the number of executions per 100,000 residents - 400 compared to 260 in China and 230 in Iran, the runner-up on the total number, 159 (Wikipedia). In most nations, death penalty is used to punish criminals for war crimes or serious crimes associated with physical injury. In Asia (Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand) it is used to punish for drug-related crimes, even though these crimes are mot related to physical injury.
As part of anti-death penalty movement, this call to repeal this measure has been upheld by various international organizations. For instance, “the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which among other things forbids capital punishment for juveniles, has been signed and ratified by all countries except the USA and Somalia” (Wikipedia). Some international conventions such as the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Sixth Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights have been adopted, although they only bind nations that have ratified them. Organizations like the European Union demand from new members the abolition of death penalty as a condition of entry. Thus, there is a significant pressure on nations to cancel it. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are two prominent organisations fighting against death penalty.
The issues involved in the discussion of death penalty usually focus around two main parts. First, this punishment is analysed from a purely utilitarian perspective in an effort to find out whether application of capital punishment really helps to deter crime and reduce the risk of recidivism, when criminals commit repeated crimes. The evidence for this is sought in crime rates in regions and nations where executions are carried out. Second, supporters or opponents of death penalty need to find out whether this penalty can be acknowledged on moral grounds, solving the problem of whether human beings are justified in killing other human beings.
Although the arguments stated remain basically the same throughout history of the discussion, evidence can vary, and the findings, although controversial, can tilt the public opinion to one or the other side. Thus, the support for death penalty surges in nations where especially outrageous murders take place. On the contrary, a lower criminal rate reduces the support.
Death penalty, in my view, has to be supported on the ground of just retribution for murder. Still, I do not believe in death as a form of punishment for drug dealers, however heinous their activities might be, since they did not violate human lives. Political crimes should not be punished with death either, as this would open the way to political repression and physical elimination of political rivals, as it happened in Stalin's times in the Soviet Union. However, when a person murders another person, death is the right kind of retribution. This is analogous to penalties imposed for instance for robbery or theft - the criminal often has to forfeit one's possessions for taking the property of another person. Similarly, it is fair that one who has consciously taken the life of another person should suffer death.
In a research paper “Is Capital Punishment Morall Required? The Relevance of Life-Life Tradeoffs” by Cass R. Susstein and Adrian Vermeule, the authors suggest that death penalty is morally justified on the basis of distinction between acts and omissions. Most opponents of death penalty argue that it is barbaric for a government to take a human life since there is a difference between an act, such as killing a person, and omission, such as refraining from the act. But, researchers argue, by forbidding official penalty, government officials de facto allow numerous private killings that are left unpunished. However, a government that fails to maintain the welfare of the citizens by omitting death penalty from the criminal code will leave citizens unprotected and decrease their welfare “just as would a state that failed to enact simple environmental measures that could save a great many lives” (Sunstein, Vermeule 2005:41). Therefore, punishing the criminals is a necessary part of any state policy. The interests of victims or potential victims of murders cannot be overlooked in order to consider the interests of the criminals guilty of the most heinous crime - taking a person's life.
One of the most important arguments in favor of death penalty is the fact that it helps to deter capital crimes. This issue is debatable since there have been suggestions that application of death penalty has no serious effects on the rate of murders, for instance. Besides, opponents of death penalty claim that it is not possible to deter so-called crimes-of-passion committed in an emotionally affected state when a person is not capable of thinking about future punishment. However, there is evidence that application of capital punishment can indeed prevent crimes, even those that are committed by intimates.
A study by Joanna M. Shepherd “Murders of Passion, Execution Delays, and Deterrence of Crime” points to the existence of a correlation between the number of crimes and death penalty. To find this relationship, she looks at monthly murder and execution data using least squares and negative binomial estimations. Her conclusion is that one execution helps to avert three killings on average. Capital punishment also has an effect on murders by intimates and crimes of passion. The influence is evidenced by rates of crimes committed by victims of both European and Afro-American descent. The deterring effect of death penalty, however, was found to be reduced by longer waits on the death row. As a result of this trend, “one less murder is committed for every 2.75-years reduction in death row waits” (Shepherd 2003:27).
Another paper exploring the relationship between crime rates and death penalty is “State Executions, Deterrence and the Incidence of Murder” by Paul R. Zimmerman uses U.S. state-level data over the years 1978-1997 to find out if capital punishment indeed has a deterrent effect. The paper, in evaluating the deterrent effect of capital punishment, adjusts the data for the influence of simultaneity and therefore comes up with estimates of a deterrent effect that greatly those of previous findings. Zimmermann has found that “the estimates imply that a state execution deters approximately fourteen murders per year on average” Zimmerman 2004:163). Besides, he has established that it is the announcement of death penalty that drives the effect.
The above-mentioned findings suggest that the deterrent effect of capital punishment is present and should not be neglected. If the killing of one criminal can prevent at least three, or fourteen deaths, by different calculations, this opportunity has to be exploited. We cannot forgo an opportunity to save the lives of honest, innocent, law-abiding citizens. Although any human life is precious, the efforts of the society have always been directed mostly at maintaining the well-being of those who live by its rules. They are getting more economic benefits that anti-social elements and can enjoy a more secure future. Thus, these people have to be protected by the law in the first place.
Death penalty, however improper it may seem from the point of view of defending criminals' interests, is “a guarantee of no repeat crime” (NCWC). Evidence of repeat offenders returning to normal life is scarce, and instances of recidivism are abundant. Once again, the solution depends on the main goal set for the legal system: is it to defend the interests of everybody alike or is it designed to support those who spend their lives without harming each other? If we side with those who believe that the system should in the first place support those who are law-abiding, the focus will be on prevention of deaths though murders as the greatest evil generated by crime. Despite the above-mentioned deterrent effect, we cannot effectively prevent crimes by first-time offenders. It is much easier to prevent those by repeat offenders.
One of the most outrageous instances supporting the above claim was the incident that happened in Alabama prison in 2001: Cuhuatemoc Hinricky Peraita, 25, an inmate who was serving life without parole for 3 murders was found guilty of killing a fellow inmate (Recidivism). The killer was finally sentenced to electrocution. However, if he had been sentenced to death right after the first murder, the other three could have been prevented. The life of an inmate who died at the hands of Peraita is no less valuable than his own. In fact, I strongly believe that it could have been more valuable: maybe that person has repented and was going to return to the society a re-born person? Maybe that person was not guilty of such a heinous crime as murder? Unfortunately, there is too much evidence that certain individuals tend to commit murder while others are less prone to it. Death penalty would then free society from the return of such individuals.
Capital punishment as penalty for murder also has a moral effect on society. It signals to the criminals that murder is a serious crime the community feels strongly about. In fact, it creates the useful perception of human life as something so precious that taking it has no justification. Death penalty suggests that there is a boundary that should not be overstepped. This should send a message to society members that taking a person's property, however reprehensible, is not to be condemned via taking a life. On the contrary, murder will not be tolerated, and people who have committed this crime should be removed from society as incapable of social living.
Another common argument given in favour of death penalty is an economical consideration. Comparisons differ depending on the bias of the people carrying out the comparison. Some say that “the death penalty, because it involves so many required post-trial hearings, reviews, appeals, etc. ends up costing more than life imprisonment” (NCWC). However, these extra expenses have to be diminished through increasing the cost-efficiency of the legal system, and society that is spending huge amounts on legal services would benefit from such a reform. Just considering the cost of keeping a 25-year-old inmate incarcerated till the end of one's life is startling and endorses the view that society has to select death penalty as a cheaper option.
Opponents of death penalty have given a number of arguments to support their position. In the first place, it is opposed by people on religious grounds. Representatives of various religious groups claim that only God can take a human life and human being are then not sanctioned to kill each other. However, in the Hebrew Scriptures there is evidence that Jews applied death penalty to criminals for selected types of crime. The only instance in the Christian Scriptures includes punishing by death “for lying about Church donations: Acts 5:1 to 11 describe how a couple, Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of real estate” (Religious Tolerance). The couple was killed for lying about the size of the proceeds from the sale of a house in an effort to conceal part of their income.
Proceeding to the Christian Scriptures, one finds some evidence that was said to be indicative of Christ's opposition to death penalty questionable. Thus, there is a renowned episode with the female sinner (John 8:3 - 8:11) who was supposed to be stoned to death and saved by Christ saying “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”. Jesus was not in fact censuring the right to kill the woman according to the ancient law. Besides, there is evidence suggesting that this passage was not present in the original version of the Scripture and was later added by an unknown person (Religious Tolerance). Besides, the passage from Matthew 5:21-22 is supposed to condemn killing: "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment..." These words implicate a person who kills out of anger, but is hardly applicable to cases where a person is murdered through a verdict of qualified jury.
Thus, Christian intolerance of death penalty appears doubtful. To negate death first of all would mean the moratorium on wars that take lives of more people than death penalty. The war casualties are often innocent peaceful people who just happened to be caught in the cross-fire, unlike recidivist criminals who end up on death row. Yet most Christian states prepare military doctrines and demonstrate to each other readiness to employ their military machine to kill people if necessary. Still others are practicing war if it suits their political goals. How significantly will then abolition of death penalty forward the goal of living a Christian life?
The same argument applies to the anti-death penalty claim that the legal system should not be allowed to execute because there is a possibility of a legal mistake that will result in the death of a wrong person (NCWC). On these grounds, wars have to be forbidden in the first place since they keep killing people that are not to blame at all. They either do their best fighting for their motherland in expectation of a heroic death or just, as mentioned before, get caught in cross-fire. Thus, any nation that does not exclude a war should not exclude death penalty that is a much more balanced mechanism. Besides, the legal system is unfortunately prone to mistakes, as are all social institutions, but this does not mean that they should not be used to carry out their functions. Most other penalties like imprisonment take a heavy toll on human life, yet they are applied to criminals, even if there is a threat of ruining a person's life by mistake. Besides, returning to the incident in Alabama in the previous section, a person dying at the hands of an acknowledged murderer in prison is also a fatal mistake of the legal system. If the system rightfully recognized the capacity to continue killing in the criminal, his final victim would have saved his life.
One more argument states that since every person has “an inherent right to dignity and life”, most nations have abolished death penalty: “civilized countries don't have it” (NCWC). First, it is still preserved in many nations including the US that fits into many criteria of a civilized country. Besides, quite a few nations that have it in their penal codes like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Barbado, Bangladesh enjoy a relatively low crime rate. This underscores that death penalty adequately serves the main purpose of the legal system: to protect law-abiding citizens.
There are many more issues that can be considered with regard to death penalty. One can evaluate the racist argument, for instance, claiming that death penalty is more often imposed on Afro-Americans than European Americans and see how it relates to crime rate in the two groups. Besides, ethical perspectives on this issue can be diverse and supported by many different theories. With the arguments presented above, however, it seems clear that there are many valid reasons in support of death penalty. On the contrary, anti-death penalty arguments need to be assessed critically, as, for instance, the religious argument.
Further research into the topic is necessary, with more authoritative studies on the deterrent effect of death penalty on the criminal rates, tracing various states in the US as well as evidence from other nations. It would also be interesting to examine the historical background of nations that have both capital punishment in their law codes and extremely low crime rate to see how death penalty affects crime rates. On the more practical level, it is my deepest belief that currently capital punishment has to be preserved in order to protect potential victims. Any consideration of the crime rate cancellation would become viable if the crime rate at least for murders goes sharply down. At present, however, capital punishment serves as an important barrier on the way of criminals ready to take another person's life.
North Carolina Weslyan College. Death Penalty Arguments & Internet Resources. <http://faculty.ncwc.edu/toconnor/410/410lect15.htm>.
Recidivim. < http://www.prodeathpenalty.com/repeat_murder.htm>.
Religious Tolerance. Capital Punishment: The Death Penalty: All Points Of View. <http://www.religioustolerance.org/execute.htm>.
Shepherd, Joanna M. Murders of Passion, Execution Delays, and the Deterrence of Capital Punishment. Journal of Legal Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 283-322. <http://people.clemson.edu/~jshephe/DPpaper_fin.pdf >.
Sunstein, Cass R., and Adrian Vermeule. Is Capital Punishment Morally Required? The Relevance of Life-Life Tradeoffs. Working Paper 05-06. <http://aei-brookings.org/admin/authorpdfs/page.php?id=1131>.
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. “Capital punishment”. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment>.
Zimmerman, Paul R. State Executions, Deterrence and the Incidence of Murder. Journal of Applied Economics, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 163-193. <http://www.cema.edu.ar/publicaciones/download/volumen7/zimmerman.pdf>.