I have blogged before about the death sentence (and possibly other entries too) but people are still being executed, so there is no reason why I should stop ranting about this. Hopefully this entry will be a little more fact-orientated than previous attempts.
Execution is one of those contentious issues, and in a country that has long banned the death sentence the whole debate starts up again when we discover people such as Harold Shipman and Fred West. It is difficult to argue against the death sentence when such creatures are in the news, but it has to be done.
If You Execute Criminals, You Also Kill The Innocent
Criminal justice systems are run by fallible people; no matter how hard we try, people will always make mistakes and some of those mistakes can cause disastrous consequences – and in the case where criminals are sentenced to death, it is not just possible, but really has happened that innocent people are killed by the government. Detailed statistics on this are practically impossible to locate – partially because we don’t know who has been executed for a crime they have not committed.
All we know is that some people have been executed because they were innocent, and some people were executed because they did not receive a fair trial. For instance, take the case of Sacco and Vanzetti where two men were executed in 1927, but in 1977 the governor of Massachusetts admitted that they had received an unfair trial and that “any disgrace should be forever removed from their names.”. This coming despite the possibility that Sacco was in fact guilty of the crime – ballistic tests on his gun in 1961 indicated it was used in the killings although it had been interfered with enough that any prosecution based on those ballistic tests would be unfair.
So here we have a case where two men were executed – one who was innocent and received an unfair trial, and another at worst received an unfair trial. And of course these two anarchists were involved in a particularly well publicised case – how many others executed have received no help in establishing their innocence ?
Of course other people have tried coming up with useful statistics, and I will myself …
Out of a list of 33 “notable” executions in the UK since 1910, 6 were of people had their convictions quashed posthumously. This gives a rate of 18% of executions being of innocent people! An alternative figure of 632 executions in the UK between 1900 and 1949, would reduce the false execution rate to 1%. Neither of these figures is satisfactory, although the second is probably closer to the mark – although it misses out the number of executions between 1950 onwards, the figure for the number of innocent people executed is probably also not complete.
But it does illustrate that of all executions, some include innocent victims – perhaps 1%. Or in other words, out of every 100 people executed, at least 1 person is innocent of the crime he or she is executed for.
Perhaps you might think that 1 out of every 100 people executed is a small price to pay, but consider how you would feel if that innocent person was someone you loved more than your own life ? Your husband, your wife, your son, or your daughter. How would you feel then ?
Every innocent victim of the hangman’s noose is someone’s loved one.
But We’ll Only Do It For The Really Bad
If you restrict executions to the really heinous crimes where you are really sure that the criminal is guilty, what happens ?
Well firstly, it does not stop innocent people from being executed. Take the example of Timothy Evans, a man who was initially found guilty of murdering his own daughter (and he was suspected of killing his wife too); yet three years later it was discovered that his neighbour John Christie was a serial killer and eventually shown to have killed the daughter and wife. Timothy Evans was eventually pardoned in 1966. Of course it was a bit late for him as he had already been executed.
No matter how certain you are that someone is guilty of a crime, there is always the chance that they are not in fact guilty.
Secondly, it is a slippery slope – if you execute someone for committing a really nasty murder, it becomes easier to allow executions for “less serious” murders, and then so-called lesser crimes. As an example of this in action, see the Bloody Code article where the UK in little more than 100 years went from 50 crimes punishable by death, to 220 crimes punishable by death.
Life Imprisonment Is Cheaper
This is actually an argument in favour of abolishing the death sentence, but a despicable one.
It is true that in the US today, it is probably cheaper to imprison someone for life rather than sentence someone to death. This is because most death sentences go through an excruciating process involving many appeals to all parts of the criminal justice system. If us woolly liberals would just shut up about the death sentence, it would be possible to execute people very cheaply.
But we’re not going to shut up about it.
And looking at the money involved is contemptible – this discussion is about justice, mercy, and all sorts of ideals. If society cannot afford a just criminal justice system, it can no longer be called a society.
Cruel And Unusual Punishment
No matter the method a country chooses to execute a criminal, it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment – prohibited by the UN (article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, although I’ve used the traditional English phrase rather than the wording of the UN). The reasons why the death sentence is inhuman is varied, but includes :-
- Most people sentenced to death spend a long time on death row awaiting execution – an average of 14 years in 2009 (and the link contains other interesting information). The reasons for this are irrelevant. The effect on the prisoner amounts to psychological torture sufficient that many on death row have requested rapid execution to end their suffering – even prisoners who were eventually found innocent.
- We may have moved on from impaling, or other forms of execution that take the victim many days to die, but that does not mean the current methods are humane – even the “most humane” method of lethal injection has those who claim it causes unnecessary suffering in some cases.
- There is a degree of arbitrariness in how the death penalty is applied leading – a serial killer with 48 victims to his name can “get off” with life imprisonment whilst someone who has killed just one victim is executed. The more you dig into just how arbitrary the death sentence is, the more you should get concerned about it. Shouldn’t justice be even-handed ?
This may not be the final version of this blog – as things occur to me, as I get the incentive to write, and as facts crop up I will be adding to it. But for now it is enough.
This probably won’t convince anyone in favour of the death sentence to give up and start opposing it, but it might encourage those who are undecided to look a bit deeper and come down in favour of abolishing it.