Friday, 8 January 2010

In support of the Death Penalty

If you - or someone you loved - were murdered, what would you expect to happen to the murderer?

Your initial response to this question probably reveals your opinion on one of the most controversial laws used in the USA and here in the UK until about thirty years ago.

My opinion is this: some crimes are so heinous that the only suitable punishment is death. Child killers, serial rapists and cold-blooded murderers will never be able to settle back into society (though the Labour government seems willing to take the risk). So what should happen to them? Opponents of the death penalty would probably say they should spend life in prison - though extreme leftists probably believe a week of rehab should do the trick - but think about this: prison, as horrible as it may be will still bring moments of laughter, moments of happiness and moments of great comfort. The killer has all these left to enjoy. The victim has none of these moments left, and his family may have fewer than the offender. Does that seem right?

What do you believe? It's a topic that I have ended up debating heavily recently and in doing so I've come across many of the typical left wing arguments against the death penalty. I want to take this opportunity to show how I (and you could) respond.

"The risk of executing an innocent person"

Clearly this is a risk, and no cvilised country could ever, ever apply a death sentence without a transparent and secure trial that proves guilt beyound realistic doubt. By "secure", I mean that there should be a unanimous jury verdict. Yes, we need jury trials and we need unanimity, not majority. We must have the right to appeal, the right to apply for clemency and a requirement for DNA evidence.

While some anti-death penalty campaigns have made much furore of some alleged wrongful executions in the US, investigations have proved that the true percentage of cases that could have been wrongful is less than one percent. Of course this is still too many. It is better for a hundred bad men to go free than one good man to be wrongfully executed. However with advances in forensic evidence and with transparency, he chance of a wrongful conviction going through to execution seems less than being struck by lightening.

There is also another very important point to consider: statistics show that there is a far, far greater chance that murderers or violet criminals who are released from prison will re-offend, sometimes within one year. Statistically, every two years someone is murdered by a released murderer. Therefore, those who argue that we must not risk taking the life of an innocent person must support the death penalty. It provides far greater protection to the innocent.
Opponents also occasionally cite the number of offenders in the US who have been released on clemency or otherwise. This is a non-sequitar argument. It is proof that the innocents are discovered and released.

"The Death Penalty is not a deterrent."

The accompaniment to this argument is nearly always the same set of statistics appearing to show that US states without the death sentence have lower murder rates than states with the sentence. This argument has several holes. Firstly, the stats do not show a lack of deterrent. The only correct way to measure a deterrent is to observe its effect in place and then remove the possible deterrent in the same location. It cannot be observed across different states because each state is different in terms of its law, its social make up, its wealth and many other factors. In particular, applications of manslaughter laws and potential plea bargains by district attorneys can vary greatly.

In Texas, the murder rate decreased greatly after the death penalty was reintroduced. In the UK, murder and serious crime has risen steeply after our own death penalty laws were abolished.

The idea that loss of life is not a deterrent seems contrary to common sense and human nature. Many studies in the psychological field of behaviorism have shown that knowledge of potential punishments can condition behaviour in humans. The bottom line however is this - if putting violent killers to death is not a deterrent, we have still removed some violent killers, if putting them to death is a deterrent, we have rid the world of some killers and avoided some more yet if the death penalty is not applied at all, we have failed to deter future killers and allowed other killers to live and quite possibly re-offend.

"It doesn't bring back the deceased/The criminal shouldn't be allowed to escape from the world so easily/They should be made to reflect on what they have done/ An eye for an eye is wrong"

In short: arguments from emotion.

It's natural that we all have strong feelings about such a powerful and emotive issue but none of the above arguments are rational. There is no sure way or even reason to believe that a violent criminal is likely to spend the rest of his or her days in remorse. I'm not a religious person but I understand The Bible is not in opposition to death sentencing and while it's true that nothing can repair the damage done to the families of crime victims, studies have shown that execution of the criminal can bring some level of comfort.

My challenge to anyone who believes that life sentencing is a greater punishment that a death sentence is to imagine how they would feel if they were in a room with an electric chair, knowing they were about to be strapped into it.

"The death penalty is racialist"

No law is racialist per se unless it specifies race within itself, only its application can be judged as racialist. Any country that is not civilised enough to apply laws evenly should not have the death penalty.I agree. I do not believe that UK laws are applied racialistly.

"It's inhumane/barbaric/primitive"

I don't agree. I believe that a judge should have an option for the death penalty in cases (with the requirements I mentioned earlier - jury, etc.) involving pre-meditated murder, child rape, kidnap and torture and certain cases of child abuse or adult rape. Those acts are inhumane and barbaric, not the punishment The idea that a group of twelve people should then reach a unanimous verdict that the crime is beyond doubt and so heinous as to warrant a death penalty that is then carried out a scheduled time and under strict conditions is not barbaric at all. "Barbaric" means "like a barbarian", a barbarian would never be able to comprehend such a course of action.

If anybody else has any other objections, I would be glad to discuss them. With violent crime in the UK on the increase and with people in some cities scared to go out on the streets at night, I believe that a reintroduction of the death penalty option could send a message to the criminal factions that we will not tolerate drug murders, gang kidnaps and torture, child abuse or murder (Baby P killers, Ian Huntley) or a release of cold blooded killers into society. We must send a clear message that we protect society nd the law abiding people, while dealing with violent criminals in a firm but transparent and just manner.


Further reading:

A peer reviewed paper showing the death penalty has saved up to sixty lives in Texas here.

Book Peter Hitchens: "A History of Crime". This book has now been released in an updated edition that excludes the chapter on hanging in favour of a chapter on ID cards. However, Hitchens summarises his argument here.'s pages on crime and punishment. Lots of useful information and arguments for both sides here.

Immanual Kant's argument in favour of the death penalty here.

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