The execution debate

By Jonathan Power

The first recorded parliamentary debate on the use of the death penalty was held in 427 BC when Diodotus, arguing that the penalty was not a deterrent, persuaded the Athenian assembly not to execute the Mitylene rebels.

The debate goes on- in America in particular, a big time user of the penalty where opinion, belatedly, is turning towards using it more sparingly and recently, in Australia, when Indonesia decided to go ahead with the execution last week of convicted Australian drug traffickers. This event got major news coverage all over the world. These two developments suggest that in many countries there is a new think going on about the efficacy and morality of capital punishment.

The modern abolitionist movement is usually traced back to the Italian, Cesare Beccaria’s pioneering work, “On Crimes and Punishment”, published in 1764. But it was an American state, Michigan, that in 1846 that became the first jurisdiction in the world to abolish permanently the death penalty. In 1863 Venezuela became the first country.

Amnesty International recently reported that the number of countries still executing people fell from 41 in 1995 to 22 last year, while the number of states which have abolished the death penalty climbed from 59 to 98.

Abolishing-minded governments are often ahead of their own public opinion. Even in Europe, the word’s pioneer in abolition, if there has been a particularly gruesome and heinous murder polls often show an upswing in support for its re-introduction.

In Hungary last week the prime minister proposed re-instating the death penalty following the stabbing of a young tobacco store clerk.

In Asia a number of countries in recent months have ramped up the giving of death sentences with the aim of cracking down on terrorism and drug trafficking. In December Pakistan ended a six-year moratorium on the death penalty after the Taliban attacked a school in Peshawar that left more than 140 people, mainly children, dead.

But moving in the opposite direction are many states in the US. The Boston Marathon Race bomber has just been convicted. Despite the strong emotions aroused by the incident polls show that most Bostonians don’t want to see him executed.

Hillary Clinton, now running for president, is today part of a growing movement among politicians in both political parties re-questioning publicly their “tough on crime” reflex. When her husband was president she backed his draconian agenda on crime which led to the mass incarceration of young, black, non-violent, offenders. The US has now ended up with the largest prison population in the world, over 2 million – on a par with Russia and China.

Moreover, it ranks fifth in the number of people it executes, not far behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. It executes more than North Korea. In the US evidence of racial bias in capital sentencing is now beyond doubt. It is not just that one in three of the people executed are black, it is that they tend to be executed for killing whites. Yet the number of whites executed for killing blacks is proportionately a good deal less.

US police officers shoot and kill upwards of 400 people a year. A disproportionate number of the victims are black. The recent riots and protests in cities as diverse as Baltimore and Ferguson after police killings have highlighted how trigger-happy the police can be. In no instance has a law enforcement officer ended up in death row despite a number of convictions.

Execution is the ultimate, irrevocable, punishment. The risk of executing an innocent person can never be eliminated. Since 1973, 150 US prisoners sent to death row have later been exonerated. A good number have been executed despite serious doubts about their guilt.

Countries which execute commonly cite the death penalty as a way to deter people from committing crime. This claim has been repeatedly discredited, most recently in a study carried out at Oxford University. There is no evidence that the death penalty is any more effective in reducing crime than imprisonment.

In a number of countries the means of capital punishment can be sadistic. In Saudi Arabia, there are beheadings, some public. Even adultery can be a capital crime. In some Muslim countries women can be punished with over 100 lashes for being the victim of a rape. This is perverse.

In some countries retribution is regarded as a good enough justification for capital punishment. In Guinea, West Africa, I covered an abortive coup for the New York Times and witnessed a mass execution. But the crowd watched it as sheer spectacle, not as some religious purifying act of retribution for a wounded society.

But then you either believe in capital punishment or you don’t. I don’t.

Copyright: Jonathan Power

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