The issue of the death penalty is one that has sparked much discussion in the past and continues in the present. A few years ago Professor Carl stone, noted sociologist at the University of the West Indies, conducted a survey to get the reactions of the people in regards to the death penalty. Eighty three percent were in favour of its retention and it is suspected by many to be even higher today due to the recent terrorism, and wanton killings in this our island home. To many the topic has already taken up enough time and energy. One writer sees it as “worn out from an intellectual point of view”. But is it, whenever we touch issues that carry behind it some kind of humanitarian ‘consequence’ (for want of a better word) we get emotional and fail to come to a reasoned position.
This paper will look at both of the issue and an argument put forward in favour of the retentionists.. For this writer the question of the death penalty hanged for quite a long time until I did some research and came to what I consider to be a reasoned position. It is hoped that this paper will bring some level of clarity as we proceed.
In this first chapter we will look at some of the arguments put forward by the abolitionists. Before we venture any further let’s try and capture a working definition of capital punishment. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines it as “the infliction by due legal process of the penalty of death as a punishment for crime” (vol. 12, p 65). To put it simply, it is the punishment inflicted by the state for various crimes.
On the surface it seems only fair that you are punished according to your deeds and should you kill, you should also be killed. However, there are many who object to this surface reasoning. Let’s now examine some of these objections.
One of the arguments used by abolitionists is the flawed nature of the justice system. Reverend Clinton Chisholm in responding to Amnesty International report intones:
“Some of the factors highlighted by Amnesty International which militated against fair trials for the men on death row, I have to take by faith. There is one though that I can verify as a live possibility based on my years in the R.M courts in Montego Bay- legal aid assignments being so late that inadequate time was allowed for the preparation of a good defense. In this regard as well it may still be true in many parishes that only, or rarely other than, ‘hard up’ lawyers accept legal aid assignments. The truth is that if certain lawyers are assigned to your case and imprisonment or death is a possible sanction then ‘pack yu grip’ or ‘mek yu will’ however innocent you are (1989).
They (abolitionists) argue that this flawed justice system can cause an innocent man to be put to the gallows. Abolitionists argue that only the very poor is executed whilst those who can afford the ‘big shot’ lawyers get lesser sentences and at worst are freed from the charges. A former U.S governor Michael Disalle intones, “the men on death row in the penitentiary have one thing in common: they are penniless…that they have no money is the principal factor in their being condemned. I have never seen a person of means go to the chair (105, p10). In 1979 the Minister of Justice set up the Barrett and Fraser committee on capital punishment and penal reform here in Jamaica to take a closer look at the issue. They examined the cases of the forty men on death row at the time. They found that “they came overwhelmingly from lower economic backgrounds, having little or no education. Most were first time offenders and many did not have the benefit of proper legal counsel (Carol 1995, p4). In 1988 Amnesty International collected data from one hundred and twenty prisoners on death row and the conditions were similar to that found by the Barrett and Fraser committee (ibid). Regrettably, the situation is likely to be the same.
Another argument put forward by the abolitionists is that it does not serve as a useful deterrent. Stanley Bohn a former lecturer at the Jamaica Theological Seminary opines that the death penalty does not in any way deter crime. He quotes FBI statistics that showed in the U.S “murder rates are twice as high in death penalty states as in states which do not use the death penalty” (Daily Gleaner 199?). Lowell Erdahl comments further “instead of deterring murder and other crimes, the violence of capital punishment may actually serve to stimulate the spirit of violence within a society”. He states further that, “by maintaining that killing is an acceptable form of coercion and retaliation, the government sets an example for all those who are frustrated with those who stand in the way of their perverse desires. When the state tells its citizens, ‘behave or we will kill you’, it is, in effect, inviting people to say the same thing to one another” (1986, p116).
In the book, Capital Punishment, Jean Rochon asks the question, who is it that the death penalty deter? He then attempts an answer; “it certainly has not deterred the man the man who commits the murder…Will it deter him in the future? Sure he can be deterred in the future by being incarcerated for the rest of his life” (1967, p92). Other abolitionists argue that fear of death will only deter normal men. But when a man commits murder he is not normal. The crime is usually committed in anger or passion and the consequences of that action is never usually premeditated. Moreover when a man plans a murder he always thinks he will never be caught.
Another argument put forward is that of morality, that is, it is cruel and unusual punishment. Professor Sir Norman Anderson, former director of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies at London University, intones in one of his lectures, “the infliction of the death penalty has a coarsening effect not only on the executioner and others immediately concerned but on society as a whole, and that it tends to cheapen human life rather than enhance its value” (1978, p117). Some argue that most of this inhumane treatment stems from the fact that many of the prisoners are on death row for and extended period of time. Amnesty International (the watch dog human rights group) reports of two judges who registered “vigourous decanting opinions in which they found prisoners who had appealed was being subjected to cruel and dehumanizing experience, and that their execution after such a delay would amount to ‘inhumane treatment’ (1989 p157). These are just some of the arguments of those who are against the retention of the death penalty. Because of the limited scope of this paper we will not discuss further the other arguments raised.
At this time we will examine the arguments that has been put forward by the abolitionists. One of the first objections we will interface with is that the justice system is flawed so people may be sent to die because of lack of representation as opposed to guilt. While I agree that this may be true to a point, I believe it is also beside the point. So what if the rich often escapes punishment, the issue of the death penalty (which is being argued) is not touched. Hear the words of Reverend Clinton Chisholm, lecturer at the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology, “these concerns, serious and important as they might be, points merely to flaws in society and in the judicial system. What is needed is sufficient ethical or philosophical reason why a man ought not to be put to death if justice, enshrined in law and still supported by the populace, demands it” (1988, p9). Edward Laijas writes that there are many safeguards protecting those facing the death penalty. According to him these safeguards are:
(1) Capital punishment may be carried out only after a final judgment rendered by a competent court.
(2) Anyone sentenced to death shall have the right to appeal to a court of higher jurisdiction.
(3) Anyone sentenced to death shall have the right to seek pardon or commutation or sentenced.
(4) Capital punishment shall not be carried out pending any legal, recourse procedure or proceeding relating to pardon or commutation of the sentenced.
These safeguards are put in place to ensure that justice will be served and that it is not racially or otherwise biased. Another safeguard that is not mentioned above is that the death penalty cannot be carried out unless the jury has made a unanimous decision on the person’s guilt.
Let’s now look at the argument against deterrence. They argue that there is no evidence that capital punishment is a deterrent, but it goes both ways. There is also no evidence to show that it is not a useful deterrent. As a matter of fact I will hasten to say that the central issue of the death penalty is not the issue of deterrence but that of justice. Justin Cox intones, “deterrence can only work if the threat of punishment is combined with the conviction that the forbidden acts are not only illegal and therefore punishable but immoral. Without the conviction of morality, the fearless will break the law, the irrational will break the law, and all others will break the law” (source file://A:\Deterrence.htm). Sir Norman Anderson argues that “to attempt to exclude any idea of retribution from criminal sanctions is to deprive them of any moral basis and to deny society the right to show how deeply it disapproves of crimes of which they were imposed or to make any attempt to reflect the judgment and justice of God” (1978, p118). Let me state again, for emphasis, the issue is not one of deterrence (per se) but that of justice.
As we bring our discussion to a close it would be remiss if we didn’t examine what the scripture says in regard to our topic. There are a lot of interpretations in regards to the passages that will be highlighted, and certainly no one can deny persons to hold or even make known their views on the subject. As it relates to the issue of capital punishment I believe the following under mentioned views can be “safely defended” (McKoy, pA4).
“There are clear references in New Testament to the fact that a ruler or government has a divinely imposed responsibility for the maintenance of justice, the encouragement of virtue and the punishment of vice” (Anderson 1978, p118-119). One of the passages that may support the death penalty is Romans 3:4. “For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer” (R S V. italics added). “The ‘sword’ is an instrument of punishment, as well as an emblem of war…the sword was often used for the purpose of beheading, or otherwise punishing the guilty. The meaning of the apostle is, that he does not wear the sword of authority as an unmeaningful show, but that it will be used to execute the laws” (Barnes, p1103). According to Bible Works version 4.0, the word ‘sword’ is from the Greek word ??????? (machaira), which is a large knife, used for killing animals and cutting up flesh, it is also distinguishable from the large sword. This may mean Paul was not only speaking of the symbolic nature of the sword, but rather, the sword is taken to be literal and a means of retributive justice.
Let us now turn our attention on the use of the word “wrath” in the passage. Barnes captures it best when he remarks, “this verse is an incidental proof of the propriety of capital punishment. The sword was undoubtedly an instrument of this purpose, and the apostle mentions it’s use without any remark of disapprobation” (Barnes, p1104). There is also the issue of the teachings of Jesus with regards to certain issues. Some abolitionists use the “pericope de adultera” (woman caught in adultery) as evidence against the death penalty (Hodges, p318 italics added). They remark that Jesus was clearly in favour of abolishment by his statement “let him without sin cast the first stone”. It is quite strange that the proponents of this argument have missed the central point Jesus was trying to make, that of MOTIVE. John Stott in his rendition of the Sermon on the Mount intones, “while Jesus was not condoning the behaviour what, he does not allow is that we retaliate. Do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you” (1978, p104). He goes further “Jesus was dealing with personal revenge, not laying down legislation for the state” (ibid).
For those who are not so inclined to the New Testament, the beginning of the Old Testament gives us direction in the matter. Genesis 9:6 seem, at least to me to permit, if not mandate the use of the death penalty. For those who disagree, how do they explain away this passage? As my friend Reverend Dennis McKoy has asked, how then can the city of refuge, provided by YaWeH for those who kill unintentionally be explained?
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
So far we have been pointing out the pros and cons in regard to this subject. I must admit that it is not an easy issue to take a position but on close examination it is my view that the death penalty is at least permissible in some cases if not mandatory. I see no reason why we should keep feeding persons who have no respect for the law or other human life so that they have the opportunity to kill again while being incarcerated. Antoinette Haughton, an attorney at law and popular talk show host calls for the abolition of the death penalty. She suggests that as punishment, we should put murderers under solitary confinement for the rest of their natural life. I ask the question, which is more inhumane? People must be made accountable for their actions, this is not being done and the result is an unprecedented upsurge of crime, even against those who are put in place to combat the problem.
Finally, just a little food for thought, what are the reactions of the abolitionists in regards to abortion. The next time you hear someone speak against capital punishment try to get their views on abortion, whether through surgery or through the new “the night after pill”. You may find these views to be very interesting. How can we “exonerate the prisoner while condoning abortion”, it doesn’t make sense.
I conclude with the words of C.S Lewis “mercy detached from justice grows unmerciful”.
Amnesty International. 1989. When the State Kills: The death penalty v. human rights
United Kingdom: Amnesty International Publications.
Anderson, Norman. 1978. Issues of Life and Death. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
Carol, Melonie. 1995. Report on the death penalty in J.A. Jamaica: U.W.I.
Chisholm, Clinton. 1988. Abortionists and Capital punishment Abolitionists. Jamaica
Record. November 16, Section J R, page 9.
———————- 1989. The Problem of Criminal Sanctions. Jamaica Record:
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Hobbs, Eric E and Walter C. Hobbs. Contemporary capital punishment: biblical
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Hodges, Zane C. 1982. The woman taken into Adultery. Bibliotheca sacra.
Erdahl, Lowell O. 1986. Pro-life/ Pro-Peace: Life-Affirming Alternatives to War,
Abortion, Mercy Killing, and the Death Penalty. Augsburg: Publishing House.
McKoy, Dennis. 2001. Mans depravity and capital punishment. Daily Gleaner. (No date given).
Regan, Tom Ed. 1986. Matters of Life and Death. New York: Random House.
Stott, John R.W. 1978. The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. England: Inter