Should the Death Penalty be Used Lawfully in Civilised Society


Capital punishment, or the death penalty, is the execution of a convicted criminal by the state as punishment for crimes known as ‘capital crimes’ or ‘capital offenses’. Historically, the execution of criminals and political opponents was used by nearly all societies both to punish crime and to suppress political dissent. Most European and Latin American states have abolished capital punishment.

Some of the countries that still use the death penalty are, Afghanistan, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Chad, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, St Lucia, Saudi Arabia, Trinidad and Tobago, USA, Zimbabwe, and many more.

In most places, the death penalty is reserved as a punishment for premeditated murder, espionage, treason, or as part of military justice. In most Muslim countries sexual crimes, including adultery and sodomy carry the death penalty, as do religious crimes such as apostasy. In some countries, drug trafficking is a capital offense. In China, human trafficking and serious cases of corruption are also punished by the death penalty. In militaries all over the world, the Court Martials have given the death penalty for offenses such as cowardice, desertion, insubordination, and mutiny.

Capital punishment was last used in Britain in 1964, but was totally outlawed on 20th May 1999. Because Britain is now in the EU, there is now hardly any possibility that the death penalty will ever be brought back.

Capital punishment is an issue that nobody can agree with each other on. There are supporters for both ‘for’ and ‘against’ capital punishment.

If it is clear that a person is guilty of murder, then that person should be sentenced to death, as justice must be served. Putting murderers in Prison isn’t a tough enough punishment. In prison they have a possible chance of being let out, and if they happen to make it out into the real world, who’s to say he/she wouldn’t kill again? Of the 2,575 prisoners sentenced to death in America, 1 out of 11 had a previous conviction of murder; this means that more people had to die before these murderers were sentence to death. If these murderers were sentenced to death the first time they were convicted, innocent lives would not have been lost. In Britain there isn’t even the chance that the murderer will be executed, if the murderer is executed then justice will be served, thus the punishment would fit the crime (an eye for an eye). This means that they pay for what they have done with the crime they have committed. This means not only the criminal in question would be executed, but also any future criminals thinking of committing the same crime.

Dustin Cox states, ‘people that favour the death penalty agree that capital punishment is relic of barbarism, but as murder itself is barbaric, they contend that death is a fitting punishment for it’. Retentionists are the people who have the ‘eye for an eye’ principle, and feel that execution would be the only way to make the public happy, as well as themselves. For example who doesn’t enjoy it when, for example, someone steals money from you, and then the person who stole the money from you, has the same thing happen to him or her? As far as most people are concerned, the criminal brings the punishment upon himself, and they would deserve to be executed. ‘Even in the tragedy of human death there are degrees, and that it is much more tragic for the innocent to lose his life than for the state to take the life of a criminal convicted of a capital offence’, (Bedau 308).

If someone is lined up for execution then he or she more than likely deserves it. They have caused a great deal of upset and grief to the family and friends of the victim or victims, and it seems like the only way justice could be served is for the criminal or murderer to die. For a murderer to simply go to jail seems unfair. In prison they will eat three meals a day, get to watch TV, and befriend other inmates. They live a pretty decent life in prison, and they don’t deserve it. Myra Hindley who murdered 5 children was sentenced to prison, and died there at the age of 60; during her time there she gained an Open University degree. Brady, who was involved in the same crimes, and sexually assaulted and tortured his victims, spent 19 years in a mainstream prison. Whilst there he befriended a serial poisoner and fellow Nazi aficionado. For two people to live decent lives after the terrible crimes they committed, is extremely unfair, and justice has not been served. This makes many people very angry, as they have committed terrible, sickening crimes; then just live their lives in a prison making friends, and gaining degrees. It is appalling that the government even let people like this live after what they did, never mind live fulfilled lives.

With no death penalty, the only reasonable sentence is a life sentence. This is costly to the taxpayers, not only for the cost of housing and feeding the prisoner, but because of the numerous appeals, which wastes time and money. By treating criminals in this way, the country is encouraging behaviour that will result in a prison sentence. If there is no threat of death to a murderer, then the murderer will not care as much about getting caught, as that person is guaranteed to be provided with decent living conditions until their next parole hearing. Edward Laijars questions how the family of the murderers victim feel about unfit punishment. The ACLU (opponent to death penalty) is quoted as saying, ‘what families of murder victims really need is financial and emotional support to help them recover from their loss and recover from their loss and resume their lives’. Laijars says, ‘what kind of cold hearted person needs money to replace the life of a loved one? It is this kind of attitude that I feel is letting criminals get away with murder. What the victim’s family want is for justice to be served, and for the offender to be put to death, not any sort of financial retribution’. It’s not just the victim’s family that want capital punishment, but sometimes the murderer’s family too. For example Ian Huntley, convicted of murdering two girls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, has been cut off by his mother, as she says, ‘he should hang for what he’s done’. If his own mother thinks this, then why should the government overlook the case that some of these people would be much better off dead?

One argument for the death penalty is the problem of overcrowded prisons. Tax money is being used to support ‘hard core’ criminals like murderers, rapists etc. that are in prison. In an American article written by Abel Martinez, he states that, ‘approximately 1,143 prison bed spaces are needed per week due to overcrowding. To put this into economic perspective, on an average each prisoner costs $22,000 per year. The 883, 593 prisoners are costing the American taxpayers $19.4 billion. Why should we, the taxpayers/the victims, support these criminals?’ By executing criminals, tax money that would otherwise have been spent on more prisons and food, could be used for something more useful. Thus the economy benefits from the death penalty, plus it helps lower the number of people in the prisons.

Jessica Spinler on execution says, ‘executions maximise public safety through a form of incapacitation and deterrence.’ Incapacitating a person is depriving the criminal of physical or intellectual power. Deterrence is discouraging and preventing an action from happening. The possibility of execution would give a pause in the process of a murder, using fear to prevent the crime. Execution would forcibly prevent the recurrence of violence, as without the criminal, there would be no crime.

Abolitionists of the death penalty believe that someone can do more alive than dead. By working, the criminal pays back society, the community, and also their victim and the victim’s family. One of the most well known examples of the criminal contributing to society is the case of Leopold and Loeb. Leopold and Loeb were 19 years old when they committed ‘The Crime of the Century’. In 1924 they kidnapped and murdered a 14 year old boy just to see what it was like. They were both spared the death penalty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Together, their accomplishments include working at hospitals, teaching illiterates to read, creating a correspondence school, and writing a grammar book. They paid back their debt to society, which is what most of the criminals who were executed in the past could of done. Leopold and Loeb had a chance that the people sentenced to the death penalty will never have – the chance to make society a better place, and the chance to be remembered for something other than cold blooded murder.

The strongest argument against capital punishment is the argument that the death penalty is wrong morally, as it is the cruel and inhumane taking of a human life. There is the case of John Evans who was executed by electrocution in 1983 in America. Evans was given three charges of electrocution over a period of 14 minutes. After the first and second charges, Evans was still conscious and smoke was coming from all over his body as a result of his flesh burning. Witnesses later called the whole incident a ‘barbaric ritual’. This shows exactly what society has turned into – murderous barbarians. This makes the judge, jury, executioner, and all the other people involved in the execution no better than the criminal that they have convicted. In places where they still have the death penalty, they have degraded themselves immensely to the mentality of the criminal.

The death penalty doesn’t act as a deterrent to crime. Leslie Cantu states, ‘expert after expert after study after study have emphasised the lack of correlation between the threat of he death penalty and the occurrence of violent crime.’ Just because there is the threat of murder, there will always be some people who will try to make a mockery out of the police system, and think they will get away with the murder. The criminal will make fun out of the murder, and will always be ready to take a chance; this means that even though there will be the threat of murder, there will always be some people who will either not be bothered, or they will take the risk, as it will make the whole murder more exciting.

The belief that execution costs less than imprisonment is false. The cost of the apparatus and upkeep of the procedures attending to the death penalty, including the endless appeals, far outweighs the expense of keeping the criminals in prison. This means that one of the main arguments for the death penalty is false, therefore bringing more reasons for the argument against.

Anti-death penalty supporters argue that the death penalty is unconstitutional. Abel Martinez says, ‘capital punishment is a barbaric remnant of an uncivilised society. It is immoral in principle, and unfair and discriminatory in practice. It assures the execution of some innocent people’. The death penalty cannot be undone, in case of a mistake, the executed prisoner cannot be given another chance; Justice can miscarry. A prisoner discovered to be innocent can be freed; but neither release nor compensation can be possible for a dead body. According to the 1987 Stanford University survey, at least 23 Americans have been wrongly executed in the 20th Century. This is an appalling revelation of the mistakes of the American justice system, and the severity of the mistakes. People lost their lives instead of another criminal who may still walk the streets. These people had no reason to die, and could have been set free and done wonderful things for the country; instead they were shut down in the prime of their lives, and sentenced to a wrongful death. There is an everyday combat in the American courts, and it is understandable that sometimes mistakes can be made – the judges and jury’s are only human after all, but these murders of innocent people would not even have been made if there were no such thing as execution.

There have been many cases of wrongful convictions, for example there is the case of the Guildford Four, who were wrongly convicted in 1957, for the IRA’s Guildford pub bombing which killed five and injured sixty-five people. They were imprisoned for over 15 years. Tony Blair issued an apology saying that they were subject to such an ordeal and injustice, they deserve to be completely and publicly exonerated’. The apology can be accepted, but it will not bring back the years lost in the men’s lives.

Sometimes there are ‘Crimes of Passion’, where (because of the circumstances) the criminal should, in my opinion, be either set free, or sent to a prison for life imprisonment. There is the case of Ruth Ellis, who was married to David Blakely, but suffered violence, and jealously within the marriage. On April 10th 1955, Ruth Ellis shot David Blakely outside a pub in Hampstead; a passer-by also sustained a slight wound. The jury at the trial took just 14 minutes to convict her of the murder. She was the last woman to hang in England, and went to the gallows at Holloway Prison on July 13th, 1955, at the age of 28. 50,000 people signed a petition for clemency, but it was rejected, as the courts ignored the public’s plea, and sentenced her to hang. The fact that so many people wanted her to live shows something about the death penalty – even though she was guilty of the crime committed, there were a lot of vicious circumstances involved, and the courts should have taken as much notice of this as the 50,000 people who signed the petition of clemency did.

If the person convicted is mentally ill, then they should not be allowed to be considered for the death penalty. Derek Bentley was hanged at the age of 19 for a murder committed by a friend. When the police arrived at the break in, Derek’s friend had a gun, Derek was convicted on the words “let him have it” when a policeman approached. The friend then shot the policeman. The words that he spoke had two meanings, and nobody knows which meaning he meant – either ‘give him the gun’ or ‘shoot him’. Derek was of limited intelligence (mental age of 11), easily influenced, and unable to read or write. He was wrongly convicted for the crime, and then hung when he was only the mental age of 11, which is disgraceful, not only in the eyes of the public, but in the eyes of the future government, who should be ashamed for sending somebody of the mental age of 11 to the gallows. Even the thought is sickening, as it is like sending a small child to die.

Even though the supporters of the death penalty have some interesting arguments, I feel that the abolitionists view contains much more stronger reasons for its views, the first of which is that the death penalty is wrong morally because it is the cruel and inhuman taking of a human life. The methods by which executions are carried out can involve physical torture. Nobody, in my opinion, has the authority to play God. Execution is not legalised murder, just like imprisonment isn’t legalised kidnapping. It lowers the government to the moral level of the criminal. One of the ironies of capital punishment is that it focuses attention and sympathy on the criminal, when they should be humiliated by having to spend the rest of their lives in prison.