Thou Shall Not Kill…A Rejoinder to Dr. Aliyu Tilde
FORWARDED BY DR. ALIYU TILDE
I was interested to read the recent public debate in favour of death penalty. It prompted me to ask friends and neighbours their opinions on the matter. Just about everybody I talked to was strongly in favour of capital punishment, citing a multitude of reasons why Nigeria needs to retain death as a reasonable form of punishment. Fortunately, there also seems to be a consensus that this punishment has to be reserved for the worst of crimes – most people refer to murder as the crime that befits death. However, none of the arguments I heard persuaded me that capital punishment is a just or effective solution even to murder. I will take this opportunity to justify my position, (although this puts me in a lonely corner).
We have all heard the arguments in favour of the death penalty. The advocates of capital punishment claim that it is a necessary deterrent against the worst crimes, such as murder in cold blood. It is argued that any lesser penalty, such as life-time imprisonment, will be interpreted by many as ‘the culprit got away with it’. Others would be tempted to follow the murderers’ example leading to an increased murder rate. By taking somebody’s life in a premeditated way, it is claimed, the killers forsakes any right to live – after all, they didn’t extend that kind of compassion to their victims. It is automatically assumed that somebody who has killed has no wish to be reformed in any way and that murderers are therefore beyond salvation.
Sympathies for a murderer’s right to live are interpreted in two ways. Either they are seen as the effect of an exaggerated valuing of human life by people who do not believe in an afterlife (if life on earth is all we have we must take the greatest care to preserve it), or any empathy that is shown for a murderer is construed as the attitude of somebody who has lesser morals and ethical values because they do not value a life enough to rid society of evil killers.
However, it is debatable whether capital punishment has ever acted as a deterrent. It is true that many countries with high rates of violent crimes exercise the death penalty. The United States is a classic example. In 1995, the country had a national murder rate of 8 per 100,000 population (a high number in the Western world). A total of 38 of the 50 US States provide for the death penalty in law and in total 56 people were executed that year. The United States is also one of the strongest supporters of capital punishment with 70% of the population supporting execution for murder.
Nonetheless, it is futile to use murder rates as a measure of the effectiveness that capital punishment has as a deterrent because these statistics say nothing about the number of killings that might or might not have taken place had capital punishment been replaced by life-imprisonment. To measure the effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent, it is preferable to examine murder rates of societies after they decided to abolish the death sentence. Canada, for example, abolished the death penalty in 1976. In the year previous to the abolition, the homicide rate was 3.09 per 100,000 population. By 1980, this rate had fallen to 2.41 and since then it has declined further to 1.78 in 2001. This denotes a 42% decline in the homicide rate since the abolition of the death penalty.
We can therefore assume that the threat of death does not deter murderers from their actions. Neither was the abolition of the death penalty interpreted as a licence to murder by others. In the face of these statistics, it is not surprising that the most recent survey of research findings on the relation between the death penalty and homicide rates, conducted for the United Nations in 1988 and updated in 2002, concluded that there is no convincing evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than other punishments. (R. Hood, The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective, Oxford University Press, third edition, 2002).
In fact, the implementation of the death penalty can cost the lives of innocent people who are wrongly convicted. Since 1973, 107 prisoners have been released from death row in the USA after evidence of their innocence emerged. Some had come close to execution after spending many years under sentence of death. In the case of other prisoners who were executed, new evidence proving innocence came too late. Recurring features in their cases include prosecutorial or police misconduct, the use of unreliable witness testimony, physical evidence or confessions, and inadequate defence representation. While it is possible that the legal system of the USA is flawed, these kinds of weaknesses would exist even within the best judicial system in the world. After all, judicial systems are designed and implemented by humans, and to err is human.
Worse still, punishments can be applied randomly and discriminatorily. In the USA, 43% of all inmates on death row are black, while they represent only an average 12% of the population. It is probably no coincidence that, there, 99% of all lawyers are white, and 70% of the accused belong to an ethnic minority. The death penalty in the USA is imposed disproportionately upon those whose victims are white, offenders who are people of colour, and on those who are poor and uneducated. I do not wish to single out the US as having a rotten judicial system. All judicial systems are designed and implemented by humans who, like all of us, have inherent values and beliefs that affect their judgements and decision-making.
In view of the fact that judicial systems can be mistaken or biased, it is important that individuals are never deprived of the opportunity to prove their innocence. This does not mean that murderers should be left to walk free, rather that it is better to have the option of releasing those who are falsely convicted from a prison sentence. This is especially true in a country with little political stability or where people do not have confidence in the justice system.
If capital punishment statistically does not prove to be a deterrent against murder and mistaken convictions cannot be revoked, then why do so many countries still retain the death penalty?
Maybe it is inconsequential to argue that capital punishment is an effective deterrent for potential murderers. For many of its supporters, the motivation for killing a murderer is not to protect society from evil, but to act as a form of retribution. It is believed to be the only punishment fit for the worst of crimes. Advocates argue that a murder victim’s life is trivialised if a likewise punishment is not inflicted on the killer. At this point, the debate here really is not about the hypothetical value attached to a person’s life, but about the purpose of the judicial system.
We need to ask what we ultimately want from the system. The law sets out the rules that allow us to live in harmony and the judicial system is there to enforce the law and allow society to exist peacefully. If we want a judicial system to act as a mechanism of ensuring that society abides by the law, then imprisonment is an effective tool to protect us from dangerous criminals. On the other hand, maybe we want a judicial system that does not take into account the well-being of society as a whole; rather, its function is to appease victims on an individual basis. In that case, many victims or their relatives will want to see a perpetrator suffer even when nothing is gained by revenge. However, in this case, the judicial system is a framework that keeps peace by carrying out revenge on the victim’s behalf and prevents a spiral of revenge and blood feuds.
In summary, capital punishment has been proven to be an ineffective deterrent against crime. Many countries around the world have either stopped using the death sentence or abolished capital punishment, and their number is increasing annually. There was no rise in the rate of murders or violent crimes as a result. Neither do evil people walk away from their crimes unpunished in these countries. A life sentence is still an effective deterrent and a sentence that may be passed more frequently, thereby allowing a penal system to be tougher on crime. There is also the question of innocent lives that have been lost because of errors or prejudiced judicial systems.
If it is proven that societies can protect themselves from murderers by imposing prison sentences, the death penalty serves no other purpose but to bring meaning to the victim’s life by signifying that a killer’s life is worth no more than that of the victim. It may help us come to terms with acts of evil when we see a closure on killers conduct and their lives. But it will never bring back a deceased person, nor will it justify the institutionalised killing that capital punishment represents.