Why I oppose the death penalty
FPSS senior advocate and anti-death penalty co-ordinator Martin Hodgson on why he opposes the death penalty.
First and foremost the death penalty is a barbaric act of murder. We teach our children very early on that two wrongs do not make a right. The crime of murder carries our harshest of sentences such is our disdain for the act. Yet the death penalty is nothing more than murder carried out in a cruel and calculated manner by the state.
The death penalty is contrary and in violation of Human rights norms. This is not a new phenomena with China having previously abolished the death penalty between 747 and 759. The modern abolition movement was inspired by Italian Cesare Beccaria in his work Dei Delitti e Delle Pene (“On Crimes and Punishments”), published in 1764. He argued that not only was the death penalty an injustice of itself but a futile exercise. His work inspired a movement based on Human rights that led to the first nation’s abolishing the death penalty in modern times. They were the Roman republic in 1849, Venezuela in 1863 and Portugal in 1867. Even earlier in 1786 then independent Tuscany abolished the death penalty and the date 30th November marks an annual holiday to celebrate the event.
Following the second World War a new era of Human rights and International law sought first to lay out the foundations of Human rights (UDHR, 1948), to move towards country by country moratoriums and later in 1966 (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) and 1990 (Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) to universally abolish the death penalty. Thus all nation’s who ratify the protocol outlaw the execution of anyone and protects against the reintroduction of the death penalty. The right to life and liberty and the right to be free from cruel and inhumane treatment are now universally recognised both in International law, Human rights treaties and Bills of rights right around the globe. There can be little doubt that the death penalty is a grave and irreversible human rights abuse.
The mere fact that the death penalty is by nature irreversible also raises a number of other issues. Firstly that judges and juries do make mistakes. Studies around the globe have shown that the error rate is unacceptably high and indeed this was one of the crucial factors that led Governor Ryan of Illinois in 2003 to mandate the end of all executions in his state after a lengthy commission into the practise. It found not only error in the state’s system that saw innocent men sent to death row, but also factors of race, geographic and socio-economic factors playing a role in who did and didn’t receive the death penalty. The error rate right across the USA has been called into question with endless death row inmates being released up to 20 years after their conviction with DNA evidence proving their innocence. The fact that many of these inmates had had little to no legal representation including lawyers who slept through their trial, lawyers who were using drugs or alcohol to excess during the trial, lawyers who had been disbarred, police and expert witnesses who had latter admitted to lying under oath, forced and falsified confession and a host of errors that bring the entire system of trying capital cases into disrepute and place unquestionable reasons as to why a moratorium right across the USA for these reasons alone is required.
Also prevented and rendered impossible by the death penalty is the idea of correction and rehabilitation. One of the ideals behind the prison system is to “correct” the problem. That being to ensure that when returning to society the individual convicted of that crime doesn’t re-offend. Rehabilitation plays a large part in why an individual is incarcerated and as well as lengths of punishment, parole is primarily judged on record, behaviour and the rehabilitation of the prisoner. The ideals that drive this system are the giving of a second chance, the ability of all individuals to change and the desire for those who have wronged society to play a positive and contributing role upon their return. Rehabilitation programs are an important part of any correctional facility. This for obvious reasons is not available to death row inmates. Despite this there are countless cases of death row inmates changing their ways in prison. No more famous than Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams who reformed his ways from founding member of the violent Crips gang to anti-gang activist, educator, author, Nobel Peace Prize nominee and even before his execution received a letter from President Bush commending his social activism. Stanley William’s was responsible for saving many lives through his “Tookie Protocol for Peace” campaign to end gang warfare and educate school aged children as well as gang members about the perils of gang life and inspire those from poor backgrounds to live lives of positive contribution. The movie “Redemption” based on William’s writings starred Jamie Foxx and was a call by William’s to use his life as an example to others that a life of crime is no life at all. Despite this, legal appeals, calls for clemency from around the globe and Stanley William’s wish to live out his life continuing his work he was executed in 2005 by lethal injection. William’s execution took more than 20 minutes, quite the contrast to the swift and lethal justice promised by death penalty proponents.
It is often wrongly stated that the death penalty is a deterrent and is required to protect society. The error of this argument has been proven many times, again the comprehensive studies across the USA have shown just how ludicrous this argument is. States that do not have the death penalty have much lower rates of violent crime, particularly rape and murder as compared to those states that maintain and utilise the death penalty such as Texas. In fact no definitive study has ever proven that the death penalty is effective as a deterrent. As many nation’s reintroduced or recommenced executions to curb climbing crime rates those crime rates, particularly drug offences continued to climb. The death penalty is also even less effective at protecting society as its proponents claim it to be. Life imprisonment is just as effective at preventing the offender from committing a crime again and doesn’t require a nation to sanction its own acts of immoral and inhumane behaviour by murdering the criminal. The upholding of a moral code and human rights even in cases of brutal crimes shows an unwavering support for human rights by the state that reinforces that states commitment to end ALL crimes against humanity. That is to prevent crimes committed against the state and it’s people as well as crime’s it itself may commit.
Finally I oppose the death penalty because I believe all and any killing of human beings is inherently wrong. Just as I oppose all acts of violence whether they be murders carried out by an individual, to acts of war by states and terrorist organisations, I am opposed to the killing of a criminal. When the crime is one not involving murder such as the trafficking of drugs not even the vengeful code of an “eye for and eye” can justify the ultimate penalty.
When factors such as those I have mentioned above are combined with this inherent opposition to killing it stands to reason that I oppose the death penalty without exception. When the death penalty is administered by systems and governments that are often corrupt and contain racism, issues of discrimination against the poor, the mentally ill, religious minorities, women and children it cannot be allowed to continue and must be abolished.
Cases spanning thousands of years show the injustice of the death penalty and the crime of execution. From the death sentence and subsequent execution of Socrates, the founder of western thought, for the crime of inspiring others to think. To 2004 case of Atefah Sahaaleh who was executed at the age of 16 in Neka, Iran. Her crime was being raped by a 51 year old man and her confession to this “crime” was extracted under duress.
Any system that publicly hangs and murders a young girl for being raped in an attempt to bring justice to society is a system I oppose!
Senior Advocate and Anti-death penalty co-ordinator
Foreign Prisoner Support Service