Essay:Against the Death Penalty

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"The right to life and dignity are the most important of all human rights and this must be demonstrated by the state in everything that it does, including the way it punishes criminals.
Justice Arthur Chaskalson, President of the South African Constitutional Court, Chief Justice of the Republic of South Africa in a 1995 decision he favored which ruled South Africa's death penalty unconstitutional.

Within A System[edit]

Addresses the applications of punishment in Western penal and judicial systems, the argument of deterrence, the social contract, the subservient position of the state in relation to its population, miscarriages of justice, human rights abuses, and the appeal to emotion.
When Thomas Aquinas wrote, “The civil rulers execute, justly and sinlessly, pestiferous men in order to protect the peace of the state,” he was probably under the same impression as today’s advocates of the death penalty that murdering murderers prevents murders. He was also probably under the understandable assumption that the often wiser eye of hindsight of many future generations would vindicate his beliefs. But this is not the case, as there are no statistics which suggest the death penalty is a deterrent to violent crime. Yet supporters can continue to hope there someday will be, especially if we murder enough murderers and give it a chance.
Unfortunately, the argument of deterrence is a rather weak one now that we have the statistics, data and more worldly perspective of the issue (having witnessed thousands of years of its use now) that Aquinas lacked. But yet, those in favor of the death penalty still attempt to use statistics and data to their advantage despite most of this information not being in favor of their argument. Some prevent basic information, such as that 99.9% of all convicted capital murderers and their attorneys argue for life, not death, in the punishment phase of their trial. The relevancy of this is close to none in regards to deterrence. It simply proves that individuals don’t want to be executed after being convicted of a crime, not that they don’t want to commit further crimes because they don’t want to be executed.
Statistics cited in cases supporting the death penalty are often dubious by including only murder rates per capita and the number of executions in some lengthy period of time. Two problems exist with this information. The first is that it is neither conclusive nor factors in other circumstances such as regional disparities, ethnicity of the violators and the executed, and what other factors (such as law enforcement efforts) had been implemented in that time that may have prevented violent crime. The second is that there is no general consensus on whether or not the death penalty is a deterrent because it is used somewhat rarely in the United States – only about one out of every 300 murders actually results in an execution. The unfortunate part is that few statistics examining these trends exist, and of the few that do, no correlation is explained, only assumed. A majority of the statistics regarding deterrence via the death penalty highlight that it may not be a deterrent at all. Canada abolished the death penalty in 1976; contrary to some predictions by death penalty supporters, the homicide rate in Canada did not increase after abolition. In fact, the Canadian murder rate declined slightly the following year (from 2.8 per 100,000 to 2.7). Over the next 20 years the homicide rate in Canada fluctuated (between 2.2 and 2.8 per 100,000), but the general trend has been downwards. It reached a 30-year low in 1995 (1.98) – the fourth consecutive year-to-year decrease and a full one-third lower than in the year before abolition. In 1998, the homicide rate dipped below 1.9 per 100,000, the lowest rate since the 1960s. In the United States, 10 of the 12 states without capital punishment have homicide rates below the national average, Federal Bureau of Investigation data shows, while half of the states with the death penalty have homicide rates above the national average. In a state-by-state analysis in the US of the last 20 years, the homicide rate in states with the death penalty has been 48 percent to 101 percent higher than in states without the death penalty. On a state-to-state comparison, states without the death penalty have lower homicide rates.
Because of the complexity of causality in crime and the legal system, statistics are not convincing in and of themselves. The question of whether the death penalty is a deterrent to violent crime is probably moot from its very proposal as being unanswerable with some indication that it is a probable “no”. Instead of trying to make conclusions about a lot of data by ourselves, we can always turn to the experts whose career it is to do just that. A recent study by Professor Michael Radelet and Traci Lacock of the University of Colorado found that 88% of the nation’s leading criminologists do not believe the death penalty is an effective deterrent to crime. The problem with deterrence, they believe, is that few offenders commit a crime anticipating that they will be apprehended, even with some degree of premeditation (and those lacking, such as crimes of passion). It should also be stressed that once a heinous crime has been committed, there are probably few, if any, deterrents to further crimes to avoid arrest and trial, especially if there is the prospect of the death penalty being applied to the initial criminal act.
In Dudley Sharp’s 1997 paper, “Death Penalty and Sentencing [Dis]Information”, Sharp argues that with no death penalty and only life without parole, there is no deterrent for [life without parole] inmates killing others while in prison or after escape. Sharp argues that this is makes the death penalty legally valuable. By this reasoning, the death penalty must be used to keep our prisons safe and kill those who kill in prison, rather than turning to non-violent measures to make prisons safer. There is no current information that would support this argument in its entirety. An inmate killing another inmate is also something that, by the economic argument which those in favor of the death penalty attempt to use, will benefit society as we no longer have to pay for the deceased inmate’s incarceration expenses. And, of course, the killed inmate probably deserved to be executed anyways.
Hypothetically, if the death penalty were a deterrent to crime, be it violent or not, this would change absolutely nothing. This point does not satisfy the argument that the death penalty is necessary. While deterrence is great, the death penalty is still too unjust to use no matter what its effectiveness. Even if we were to throw aside all other moral questions regarding the death penalty and focus solely on this point of reasoning that the death penalty is necessary, we still could not find it satisfying because punishments are not made only because they are intended to deter future crimes. There is a strong argument with plenty of evidence that punishment in general is a great deterrent to crime regardless of how harsh or inhumane it is. Even if it were a social law that the more severe and cruel the punishment the greater its deterrence effect would be, there would still be hesitation to opt for the more torturous and violent punishments. The issue would then become where to draw the line, which I can address.
We are now brought to a thorough consideration of the penal and judicial systems, their purpose, and the death penalty being applied therein. The first thing to address beforehand is the existence of a social contract as elaborated upon by Western philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. The basic notion of the social contract implies that the people give up some rights to a government or other authority in order to receive or maintain social order. Since civil rights stem from agreeing to the contract by both parties in the form of social give and take, those who choose to violate their contractual obligations (i.e. committing crimes) abdicate their rights. The rest of society can be expected to protect itself against the actions of these criminals. To be a rights endowed member of society is to accept personal responsibility for one's ability to follow its rules, along with the looming promise of punishment for violating them. In other words, when a crime is committed by an individual the social contract between the state and the population (in this case just the violator) has been violated.
The penal system of the West serves three primary purposes of which punishment is not one of them. They are: [1.] to remove an individual from society, or limit their rights therein so they may no longer constitute a continued threat to the public or public order, [2.] to rehabilitate and reintroduce the criminal back into society if at all possible, and [3.] to renew the social contract ("pay one's debt to society"), respectively. Rehabilitation often preceded public safety in priority during the earliest formation of America’s penal system. You'll notice that punishment is not a priority due to the philosophical question of the necessity of punishment and the arbitrary sentences for violating laws. The purpose of the judicial system is not to extract revenge on behalf of the bereaved in cases of murder, but to represent the state and uphold the three listed purposes, hence court case titles often including the province or nation against the accused, and hence a jury of peers within the affected community being given their sometimes appropriate responsibilities.
It has been proposed, within the contentions of the three listed purposes, that the death penalty meets the responsibilities of the Western penal system. At a close and pragmatic examination, it does not. It could be argued that it does remove the individual from society, yet on the contrary, as does imprisonment without delving into the moral dilemma of killing people. It furthermore removes all possibility of rehabilitating the offender and successfully reintroducing them back into society as jurors rendering verdicts of death would believe them to be beyond this goal. The social contract becomes void when the individual is put to death, and therefore no renewal of it becomes available. A state, be it a functioning democracy or autocratic regime, is ultimately subservient to the will of its people, it cannot take their lives for any reason and permanently terminate the social contract. Or, more elegantly: “Many of us do not believe in capital punishment, because thus society [the state] takes from a man what society [the state] cannot give.”
Francisco de Goya - The French Penalty.jpg
Is the state not subservient to its people, particularly in a functioning democracy in which the people write the laws and can decide what actions the state can and will take? Consider that the identity of the state is simply the expression of the collectively endowed authority of the people who obtain and possess it, be it legitimately or illegitimately, democratically or undemocratically. The government, being the most potent ingredient of what comprises the state, is not an external body that governs itself and is self-supporting. Even a tyrannical autocracy cannot exist eternally without the silent consent of its population. A state that is ever-changing is likely to hold a more recognizable identity than a state that is stagnant in its own change. Thus, the state only survives in a form so long as it satisfies the expectations and demands of its population, and hence the state is ultimately subservient to its people.
Some will argue that within a democracy, where the state expresses the direct will of the people, it is therefore allowable for a majority of the population to allow the death penalty to be used as a means of "punishment" if the majority wishes this to be the case, and that it is allowable for a fair justice system to convict ones believed guilty and carry out their executions. There are numerous problems with this application. The first is the moral question of whether or not it is appropriate for any group to decide whether it is appropriate to kill another human being based on the concept of guilt which, in at least Western justice, is simply convincing evidence without reasonable doubt rather than a measure of certainty. There is no recognition of "innocence" within Western justice due to its nature of certainty. "Not guilty" simply means that there is not enough evidence to prove an individual committed an offense without reasonable doubt, of which "doubt" is sometimes a subjective and rather ambiguous legal term. For those who take murder seriously, this definition of guilt ought not be satisfactorily sufficient for the serious decision of killing somebody in retribution.
It has also been asserted that the death penalty is a form of extended self-defense. Manfred F. Schieder makes the argument in Ayn Rand, I and the Universe: “In the case of murder, the death penalty - issued by way of putting the culprit to sleep to then apply the lethal injection - is the time delayed procedure of self-defense as carried out by the representatives of the victim(s) who, at the time of the incident and due to the then existing circumstances, was/were unable to defend itself/themselves from the willful murderous attack.” Benjamin Tucker is correct in addressing this as merely a theory, and not a very impressive one at that. The death penalty can only be viewed as extended self-defense with an indeterminate certainty that separates real self defense from the stupidly unique type of self defense that the death penalty is proposed to be. In a real-life situation, the victim usually knows that they are being attacked – this is of certainty and the known identity of the attacker is perhaps unimportant for an act of self defense in the immediate situation. To find an individual guilty and sentence them to death on the basis of using the death penalty as extended self defense would require the same certainty that the individual in question was the actual killer – a certainty that cannot be expressed in courts and that cannot be equivocally expressed like that of immediate self defense. Thus, the death penalty does not become extended self defense, but a miscarriage of justice under the veil of self defense.
And what of cases of individuals being sentenced to die despite reasonable objections that the case might have very well been an act of self defense? The act of killing a person under the rationale of it being extended self defense for defending themselves is not only ironic, but an unfortunate and very plausible situation.
These applications also branch to the various concepts of a fair justice system, and to what measure a justice system is fair if there is an objective measure to it at all. The possibility of executing the innocent is of serious concern, especially outside of the West. There are few available legal avenues for defendants in nations where individuals lack fair representation. Additionally, these "courts" may often make decisions based on unquestioned and faulty evidence, furnished for any fathomable petty ulterior motive. In many of these corrupt and broken justice systems, the methods of execution are barbaric, cruel, and discriminant. Decapitation, hanging, and stoning (some of these being public) are still being used with some frequency against petty criminals and the accused in some parts of the world. While more extensive information on this is difficult to obtain due to the unwillingness or inability of many of these nations' authorities to keep complete records and give accurate reports, national organizations have attempted to make the effort to do so instead.
We have the liberty of knowing through such groups that executions happen very quickly in China, so quickly in fact that the government maintains (or perhaps used to maintain) a fleet of "execution vans" in which condemned prisoners are hustled into, killed, and popped right out the other end. Some Islamic nations such as Mauritania, Yemen, Sudan, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have capital laws against sodomy, adultery, and apostasy. In India, drug trafficking can be a capital offense. The sensibility of the West's approach of electric chairs, firing squads, and poison has clearly not reached the Middle East’s barbaric methods.
Take the case of Mirza Tahir Hussain. Mirza made news in the United Kingdom as he was a British man who was jailed in Pakistan in 1988 for killing a taxi driver. For the crime, he was sentenced to be hanged. Mirza claims that he had committed the crime in self-defense, but the Pakistani legal system is too hopelessly backwards to afford anyone a fair trial (especially a Western foreigner). Only through pressure from British reps, and eventually Prince Charles himself, did President Musharraf commute the charge to a life sentence. What is most interesting about this case is that Mirza was tried and convicted by The Federal Sharia Court after having the charge squashed by the Pakistani Supreme Court. Restrictions on double jeopardy are apparently nonexistent in Pakistan. Fortunately for Mirza, he was not executed and was released. But that’s not the point. The point is that Mirza was literally days away from his unjust execution. He would have been executred if it weren’t for some setbacks, postponements, and international pressure on the "justice" system he was in the grip of. It highlights how a judicial system which does not demand much (if any) evidence can produce horrendous verdicts if the death penalty is exercised within it. In fact, any system that recognizes its own fallibility has no business killing people. The guilt of many individuals is theoretically impossible to prove with any certainty. Even the word “innocence” is not part of legal jargon. One cannot prove their self “innocent”, they can only hope to be found “not guilty”. But yet, even the West can make serious errors.
In 2002, Ray Krone, an Arizonan who was the 100th person to be exonerated from death row for in the United States, was found not guilty of the murder and rape of a bar manager. He was exonerated due to DNA evidence. This was only after having served ten years and four months in prison for a crime which he did not commit and was to be executed for. Now that these cases are being found to number in the hundreds, it is as least very probable, if not certain, that even the Western standard of justice has had a loophole through which there were wrongful executions. As of August 2009, 135 Americans on death row have been exonerated. That these individuals are free is only thanks to the advancements of DNA science and the availability of post-trial reviews. Those before them never had the chance of having their convictions overturned with such evidence.
Cases of exoneration on death row are well-known in the US. Statistically, from 1973-1999, there was an average of 3.1 exonerations per year from death row. From 2000-2007, there has been an average of 5 exonerations per year. As of July 9, 2009 there have been 135 exonerations from death row in 26 different states of the US.
There is also the inescapable issue of inherently unfair trials, which usually stem from some bias or prejudice. These inevitably lead to miscarriages of justice. Zoom now into the opacity of Meir Tobianski's charges and execution. Tobianski was executed as an Israeli traitor in 1948 on circumstantial evidence. He was posthumously acquitted and wrongdoing has been admitted. No amount of protocols or restrictions can wholly prevent bias or prejudice in any justice system, for as long as the justice system exists there will be individuals who attempt to manipulate it to their own wills and grudges. This is an untenable flaw in any justice system which practices capital punishment.
In fact, within the United States, racial bias has arguably resulted in a greater amount of executions of blacks. In Texas, no whites were sentenced to death for killing blacks in 173 cases, but death was imposed in 10 percent of the 517 cases of blacks killing whites. There are (in the U.S.) numerous programs funding DNA testing of evidence to exonerate potentially wrongly convicted inmates on death row, which is producing a steady trickle of freed prisoners, a striking percentage of whom are black or other minorities. Wrongful convictions are becoming rarer because of the availability of DNA evidence. But in cases where DNA evidence is not present, accused blacks statistically have a higher chance of being convicted and sentenced to the death penalty than a white.
While most cultures of the world have historically used capital punishment, many countries, particularly Western and democratic ones, have moved, or are moving, away from the application of this punishment. The 1950 European Convention on Human Rights recommended that the death penalty be abolished in European nations or restricted to times of war. This has been ratified within European Union member countries over the following decades, so that capital punishment is now no longer practiced in Europe. The United Kingdom abolished the death penalty for virtually all offenses in 1969 (although it still remained an available sentence for treason until 1998). In December 2007 the United Nations General Assembly approved a moratorium on the death penalty, which calls for a worldwide suspension (not necessarily abolition) of capital punishment. The moratorium is not binding, but established an international consensus against the death penalty. In the United States, moratorium was placed on executions by the Supreme Court in 1972, not because capital punishment itself was ruled unconstitutional, but because of perceived procedural flaws. Executions resumed in 1976 after these were "ironed out." The death penalty is largely an issue left for American states rather than the federal government (though the federal government does have the power to carry out executions), and thirty-six states still exercise it.
Often times, support for the death penalty is argued on an appeal to emotion about pain, suffering, and just punishment. They explain that the death penalty is the result of passionate anger and loss, and that by some very reasonable connection in logic, the violator must suffer to make the victims’ families and those affected feel better. This is not only an unacceptable approach to justice, but an illogical and immoral approach to absolutely anything. Quite simply, it is never right to injure another. It is even more immoral to do it in anger and loss, and exponentially more immoral to commit passionate "justice" on the basis of passionate anger and loss. It has even been uttered that the death penalty serves to restore some metaphysical order in the universe that becomes unbalanced when an individual is murdered. This invocation of a mystical blood sacrifice, which is a popular belief in Eastern countries such as China, Japan, and Singapore, is beyond refutation and does not deserve serious consideration.
The conditions that this sentiment results in are horrific. China's rate of capital punishment is alarming; considering China's population and its relative number of executions, its figures are still high. Per capita, China executes 0.07 per 100,000 people, much higher than the United States (0.02 per 100,000) and Pakistan (0.05 per 100,000), though Iran (0.25 per 100,000) leads in executions per capita. Figures for China are varying, but could be as numerous as several thousand per year according to the Dui Hua Foundation. Economic crimes such as tax fraud have appeared routinely among the dockets of those receiving the death sentence in China, as have relatively small-scale drug offenses. Capital punishment is also imposed on inchoate offenses (attempted crimes which are not actually fully carried out), including repeat offenses such as attempted fraud. The recidivistic nature of the offenses, not their seriousness per se, is what is adjudicated to merit the capital sentence. Methods of execution in China include execution by firearms (for which the government at one point used to collect a "bullet fee" from the relatives of the condemned) and lethal injection in the earlier mentioned execution vans.
Singapore itself had the highest per-capita execution rate in the world between 1994 and 1999, estimated by the United Nations to be 13.57 executions per one million populations during that period. The preferred method of execution in Singapore is a ritual hanging – ritual in the sense that hangings always happen at Changi Prison at dawn on a Friday (you can mark your calendar for it and répondez s'il vous plaît). Crimes that are punishable by hanging in Singapore include offenses against the President’s person (which qualifies as treason in Singapore and freedom of speech in the West), unlawful discharge of firearms, and kidnapping or abducting in order to murder. Even this invocation of a mystical bloodlust in these contexts doesn’t make sense; certainly no order is "restored" by executing a person who has unlawfully discharged a firearm or said not-so-nice things about the president.

Devaluing Life: The Economic Argument[edit]

Addresses whether or not the death penalty is more costly than life imprisonment and the pre- and post-trial processes.
The economic argument is usually a last-ditch effort to appeal to rationalism, and it is not a very strong one for supporters of the death penalty since most information about the cost of the death penalty in comparison to other penalties show the death penalty as being much more costly.
Take this year's [2009] budget report on California, where California could reportedly save up to one billion dollars in five years by eliminating the death penalty. Generally speaking, it is about 10 times more costly to execute an individual than it is to keep them incarcerated. States with the death penalty pay millions more in trial and imprisonment of death row inmates in comparison to trials where the death penalty is not optional. The prolonging of a trial that comes with the death penalty, the specialized incarceration that death row inmates are subject to, the processing of appeals, and the actual cost of the execution increase the costs drastically. The extended trials often lag and delay judicial duties and deprive attention to other cases. In the US state of Georgia, the system of representation in death penalty cases is reportedly in crisis because of insufficient funding. Cases are grinding to a long but increasingly familiar halt. Almost 1 in 5 of all pending capital cases in the state are stalled because of a lack of funds to pay for defense work. Even in Texas, the US state with the most executions, costs are making capital cases a challenge. "The last time I lectured on the subject, a capital trial cost over $3 million," says Texas Senior District Judge C.C. Cooke. "Well, we can keep a person in prison for life for about $500,000. Some say it costs too much to keep them locked up, but that doesn't square. It's a lot cheaper to keep them in a 9 by 6 cell instead of paying the attorneys' fees and all the other costs that go with a capital trial. Some counties can't afford it. In Brewster County, the net tax base wouldn’t pay for a capital trial."
A 2003 legislative audit in the US state of Kansas found that the estimated cost of a death penalty case was 70% more than the cost of a comparable non-death penalty case. In Tennessee, death penalty trials cost an average of 48% more than the average cost of trials in which prosecutors seek life imprisonment. In Maryland death penalty cases cost 3 times more than non-death penalty cases, or $3 million for a single case.
Upon the realization that the death penalty is more expensive, supporters will often direct their venom at the pre- and post-trial procedures which they say are to blame for the costs and need to be changed rather than having the death penalty abolished altogether. Even on a subgame level, by taking tiny bits of economic costs and comparing them, the death penalty is fiscally favorable. While it is true that the availability of the death penalty gives prosecutors another instrument of leverage in the plea bargain process, which cuts costs in an overcrowded court system, it is also true that the endless appeals and required additional procedures on death penalty cases where the fish don’t bite clog court systems. But the necessity of these appeals is without parallel. Habeas corpus and other post-appeal procedures, according to advocates of the death penalty like Professor Walter Berns in his For Capital Punishment: Crime and the Morality of the Death Penalty, endlessly spin out cases and postpone punishment while never showing that a murderer was not guilty. This is absolute nonsense. The purpose of post-conviction proceedings in the US is to ensure that the defendant has had or will have a fair trial under the Constitution, and those who invoke this argument ought to tell us what they think is wrong with that. The suggestion that reviews of the fairness of a trial ought to be abandoned in capital cases, due to economics or plain ignorance, reveals an indecently avid rush to kill people and would lead to many miscarriages of justice if it were to be adopted.
Pre-trial measures, such as careful jury selection, are also necessary to ensure a fair trial. The painstaking measures of having to repeat a trial could easily double costs, and the prevention of doubling costs is to make sure things are done right the first time around, or to remove the death penalty as an option altogether. The latter sounds more pragmatic.
There is no economic argument to be had in countries where fair trials are not a regular part of the judicial process. Even for war criminals Only under the guise of justice are war criminals, whose legal proceedings would be quite expensive in war torn countries, executed. As Christopher Hitchens writes in Slate on Nov. 6th, 2006: "The hanging of the principal Nazi criminals was more an act of hygiene than of law, as well as an absolute assurance to their surviving victims (and to their remaining sympathizers) that there could be no second act. One's humanity, here, is partly enlisted for once in favor of the death penalty." Hitchens later goes on to point out that in these instances and those like them, such as the hanging of Saddam Hussein, valuable evidence is lost regarding motives on other crimes which may have not yet been uncovered. Yet the economic argument and all others, to supporters of the death penalty, takes precedence at this and all other junctures.

The Invocation of Religion[edit]

Expands on the major role of Islam in Middle Eastern states regarding capital punishment, the role of Christianity in the West regarding capital punishment, Judaism, Hinduism, and a minor examination of religious scriptures.
That an economic argument for the death penalty exists is demonstrative of the devaluation of life from those who support the death penalty, where the state's money is apparently more valuable than an individual's life. If this logic were followed appropriately, one would expect supporters of the death penalty for this reason to also support abortion, as abortion services are less costly in terms of expenses to the state throughout a person's maturation (education, state-supported medical insurance coverage, etc.) and social services. This, however, is not usually on par with the social positions commonly held by death penalty advocates who are regularly pro-life. Unfortunately for them, this economic argument is obviously ridiculous when applied anywhere else in which human life is considered. Yet for some reason, an adult life has no particular sanctity if it is being lived by a person who, for whatever reason, has committed a particular crime. I am unable to understand this dichotomy because it’s too contradictory. Perhaps all individuals on death row should remind antiabortionists that they were once fetuses.
But where the sanctity of human life is considered yet another moral question must be answered by supporters of the death penalty that is perhaps unanswerable with a serious face: by what offense does somebody devalue their own existence to the extent of being justifiably murdered? Any answer is bound to be arbitrary or impose some moral absolutism which are the two key components of the death penalty's application: the arbitrary designation of the death penalty and the moral absolutism behind it that asserts its unwavering authority. Statements such as "an eye for an eye" come to mind. There are scores of individuals who believe that eyes and teeth ought to be exactly exchanged in the case of murder, and an unsurprising majority of them invoke some religious scripture as their justification.
Icon religion.svg
The invocation of religious doctrine is pervasive into the issue and ought not to have any real effect of policy in states where a separation of church and state is acknowledged and respected. Unfortunately, religious doctrine does have influence in public policy. The Catholic Church has officially denounced capital punishment and is consistent with this on the basis of sanctity of life. A majority of Protestant sects in the United States have upheld the necessity of the death penalty for heinous crimes according to selective interpretation of the Bible. Islam's holy books, the Quran and the Hadith, note that capital punishment is appropriate for intentional murder and fasad fil-ardh ("spreading mischief in the land"). The latter can be interpreted to mean treason, apostasy, terrorism, land, sea, or air piracy, rape, adultery, and “homosexual behavior.”
The application of the extrajudicial executions for these crimes in Shari'a states is well-documented despite the intents to conceal them from within and without. Iran's own laws proclaim the earlier mentioned crimes to be punishable by death, as well as sodomy, incest, "fornication", drinking alcohol, "sodomy", homosexual relations/lesbianism, “being at enmity with God” (mohareb), and “corruption on earth” (mofsed fil arz). Amnesty International reports executions of homosexuals for simply existing and children for crimes that would otherwise seem minor in the West, or at least not be grounds for capital punishment. Iran is second only to China in its number of executions, though it has a higher rate per capita and its methods of execution are often more cruel and unusual. These typically range from your friendly game of being bashed to death with rocks, or the always-entertaining and dignified public lynching.
The Christian right in America has frequently favored capital punishment despite their own inconsistencies and admitted selective interpretations. It is often highlighted that the Old Testament defines acts that would be punishable by the death penalty, and that the 6th Commandment is really translated to “thou shalt not murder”, not “thou shalt not kill”. The problem with using this semantic difference is the specifically unlawful definition of murder – which oddly enough, works to their favor at a first glance. By this definition, everything [that involves killing] is murder except the death penalty in nations where it is legal and armed casualties in times of war. The debate over the translation is irrelevant though since capital punishment is both murder and killing (depending upon where you might live). Murder is defined as the unjust killing of a human being by another, with only established laws claiming it to be unlawful. Within the Bible, Numbers 23 deals with defining the crime of murder and setting up the guidelines for revenge killing in ancient Israel. Killing anyone with any weapon or in unarmed combat is considered murder (Num 35:16-21), but verse 27 shows that retzach (murder) can also be justified. Leviticus 24:17 and Exodus 21:12 prescribe death for anyone who kills, while Matthew 5:38-48 refute all of the teachings of the Old Testament directly regarding capital punishment and the concept of an “eye for an eye”.
At any rate, the distinction of “murder” as being unlawful is certainly not universal. In places and times where killing another human being for certain or all cases was lawful, or where there was no law, there could be no concept of “murder”. Whether Lev. 24:17 and Exodus 21:12’s uses of “kill” were also originally written as “murder” is not elaborated upon as one would expect to make the claim of the 6th Commandment to mean “murder” actually valid. The more universal definition of “murder” that the Christian conservatives refuse to adopt is that it is unjust rather than unlawful. If applied, this makes sense out of nonsense within Christian scripture, though the rejection of Old Testament standards of what is just and the rejection of it by Christians today is a perfect example of selective interpretation of the Bible and self-contradiction.
At least Islam’s adherents can agree with their own scriptures regarding capital punishment verbatim, and it shows in their uniform handling of murder and capital punishment. While most of Islam’s capital punishment-necessitating crimes sound absurd and outrageous, we should be thankful, at least for selective interpretation of the Bible, that the crimes for which death is punishable by in Christian scripture are not applied as serious law (though some Dominionists and Millennialists would prefer it that way). Acts such as premarital sex (though this applies only to virgin females who live at home with their fathers), breaking sabbath (perhaps by picking up sticks), cursing your parents, or giving one of your descents to Molech might easily flood death rows in the West to exceeding capacity and constitute a new type of caedere for our language’s lexicon.
Next, we come to the third and foundational Abrahamic religion: Judaism. While the Torah supports the death penalty in principle, it places formidable obstacles to its implementation, and the Talmud nearly drove the executioner to extinction in ancient Jewish practice. Four of the obstacles described are:
  1. There must have been two witnesses to the crime, and these must conform to a prescribed list of criteria. For example, females and close relatives of the criminal are precluded from being witnesses according to Biblical law, while full-time gamblers are precluded as a matter of Rabbinical law.
  2. The witnesses must have verbally warned the person seconds before the act that they were liable for the death penalty
  3. The person must then have acknowledged that he or she was warned, and yet then have gone ahead and committed the sin regardless.
  4. No individual was allowed to testify against him or herself.

It should be noted that these restrictions were only held among the Israelites themselves. Foreign nations of false gods were often subject pillaging and harsh total war – the killing of noncombatants and the commands to summarily execute children, women who were not virgins, and even animals is regarded as ethnic cleansing first and capital punishment second.
Presently in Israel, capital punishment is illegal in nearly all circumstances except for extraordinary crimes, including genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes against the Jewish people, and treason during wartime. Israel inherited the British Mandate of Palestine code of law, which included death penalty for several offenses, but in 1954 Israel abolished it. Only one individual, Meir Tobianski, was executed prior to this abolition. Famous Nazi and proclaimed “architect of the Holocaust” Adolf Eichmann was executed in 1962 for crimes against the Jewish people and crimes against humanity. Attention should be made to the fact that this was capital punishment in response to a genocide which was, at least in the Third Reich, considered capital punishment.
Hinduism is also not quite clear in its texts, as teachings exist for both forbidding and permitting the death penalty. Hinduism in general preaches ahimsa (or ahinsa, non-violence), but also teaches that the soul is immortal and cannot be killed, that death is limited only to one’s physical body, and that death is something to be viewed with apathy. As it is taught, the soul is constantly reborn into another body upon death (this cycle is known as samsara) until the liberation from this cycle of death and rebirth or reincarnation and all of the suffering and limitation of worldly existence (Moksha). The religious, civil and criminal law of Hindus are encoded in the Dharmaśāstras and the Arthasastra. The Dharmasastras describe many crimes and their punishments and calls for the death penalty in several instances, particularly in Manu Smriti (the “lawbook for mankind” where it is supported that a murderer should be condemned to death so that in his next life he will not have to suffer for the great sin he has committed). Such crimes include murder, the mixture of castes, and “righteous warfare”.
However, the Mahabharata contains passages arguing against the use of the death penalty in all cases. An example is a dialogue between King Dyumatsena and his son Prince Satyavan (section 257 of the Santiparva) where a number of men are brought out for execution at the King's command but are pardoned from death: “Sometimes virtue assumes the form of sin and sin assumes the form of virtue. It is not possible that the destruction of individuals can ever be virtuous…
By killing the wrongdoer, the King kills a large number of his innocent men. Behold by killing a single robber, his wife, mother, father and children, all are killed. When injured by wicked persons, the king should therefore think seriously on the question of punishment. Sometimes a wicked person is seen to imbibe good conduct from a pious man. It is seen that good children spring from wicked persons. The wicked should not therefore be exterminated. The extermination of the wicked is not in consonance with the eternal law.”


The rationale behind the death penalty might as well be a child’s definition of justice – that of vengeance and spite rather than mercy and fairness. The appeal to mercy and fairness over vengeance and spite is sober perspective on a particular crime and allows for the recognition that criminal acts do not define criminal character. As abhorrent as any crimes committed might be, capital punishment is an abhorrent extraction of revenge and nothing more despite the veils that proponents attempt to mask it under. The only “fairness” established by applying the death penalty is equating the mentality of a justice system or persons with the mentality of the criminal in question.
Humane alternatives to the death penalty are existent and far more pragmatic in most and if not all situations. The propensity to jump to the death penalty is indefensible and lacks a realistic ethical or rational argument to support it. The notion that there is a logical case for the death penalty is absurd and insincere pseudologic itself. In fact, the case against the death penalty could best be summed up in the statement that there is no case for the death penalty. It is neither necessary, moral, economical, fair, nor a reasonable deterrent to future crime.
We cannot limit ourselves to barbaric irrationality when looking at the role of justice within our or any society. Life is a universal value, and the greatest demonstration of this value is to forgive and show mercy to our worst offenders by not equivocating them with their crimes.
An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.
-Mohandas Gandhi


  1. Thomas Aquinas, "Summa Contra Gentiles", III, 146
  2. The Death Penalty: No Evidence for Deterrence | John J. Donohue & Justin Wolfers, pub. 2006
  3. The Death Penalty in Canada: Twenty Years of Abolition "Twenty Years of Abolition: the Canadian Experience" vers. August 25th, 2009 by Amnesty International of Canada
  4. States With No Death Penalty Share Lower Homicide Rates | New York Times, September 22, 2000, by Raymond Bonner and Ford Fessenden
  5. Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates?: The Views of Leading Criminologists | by Michael L. Radelet and Traci L. Lacock The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 2009 by Northwestern University, School of Law; Vol. 99, No. 2
  6. John Locke's Two Treatises On Government: A Translation Into Modern English
  7. But They All Come Back, Jeremy Travis | Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press, 2002
  8. Katharine Fullerton Gerould, Modes and Morals, ch. 7 (1920)
  9. Iran to hang teenage girl attacked by rapists | Saturday, 07 January 2006, Iran Focus
  10. Justice For Cory Maye posted by Dale Franks on Tuesday, December 13, 2005
  11. China's mobile death fleet | Asia Times Online, Jul 21, 2006 by Antoaneta Bezlova
  12. Section 377 of the former British penal code introduced the criminalization of such crimes to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, India, Kiribati, Malaysia, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Myanmar (Burma), Nauru, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Western Samoa.
  13. entry for Saudi Arabia, vers. August 25th 2009
  14. Mirza Tahir Hussain: Life and death of Hyde Park man under spotlight, by Richard Edwards; 10 August 2009
  15. Twice Wrongly Convicted of Murder - Ray Krone Is Set Free After 10 Years by Hans Sherrer Justice Denied Magazine, Vol. 2, Issue 9
  16. Blind Justice: Juries Deciding Life and Death With Only Half the Truth by Richard C. Dieter, pg. 6, October 18, 2005
  17. Innocence and the Death Penalty at the Death Penalty Information Center, vers. August 25th, 2009
  18. Graham Hughes in "Contemporary Issues Criticism", pgs. 37-38 | pub. 1982 by Gale Research Company
  19. Map of US states with capital punishment laws, vers. August 25th, 2009
  20. The Dui Hua Foundation's Human Rights Journal, vers. Sept. 11th, 2001
  21. United Nations' Economic and Social Council Secretary-General's report, pub. May 2001 | "Capital punishment and implementation of the safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty"
  22. "To execute or not: A question of cost?" Associated Press | MSNBC, March 7th, 2009
  23. Death Penalty Information Center: News and Developments 2009: Costs, vers. August 25th 2009
  24. P. Kendell, "Judge favors sentence other than death," Cleburne Times-Review, April 13, 2009
  25. "Death Penalty Costs" from Amnesty International, vers. August 25th 2009
  26. "Death For Apostasy In The Quran & Hadith" from Islam Review, January 09, 2006
  27. Omid of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, vers. Sept. 11th, 2001
Here is a link to a published, though possibly out-of-date version, with appropriate citations.