Is Capital Punishment on its Way Out?
Executions or death sentences are being increasingly opposed by many. But it is still the
ultimate punishment meted out in democracies including India and America.
One kind of punishment that continues to take up much space in legal transcripts is capital
punishment or death sentence. The very mention of such a punishment sends shivers down
the spine, though those sentenced are brutal criminals who snuffed out the lives of innocent
Capital Punishment in a Civilized World
Capital punishments are as old as civilization itself, though the brutality of the killing
techniques have changed or become more humane. The death penalty, though questioned
by some sections of society, was never considered to be barbaric or cruel, till recent times
where the outrage against this form of punishment led many nations of the world to ban it,
particularly in Europe.
However, capital punishment is still common since the majority of the population of the
world lives in countries that allow executions such as India, China, Indonesia and USA.
These nations have also voted against the resolutions of the General Assembly in the United
Nations that called for a universal freeze on executions and eventual abolition. But the
antipathy towards execution is still there. Even in Iran, which features the highest number
of death sentences in the world after China, there now seems to be a trend of relatives of
murder victims pardoning murderers at the gallows.
Capital Punishment in the US
Capital punishment is legal 32 states in the US and illegal in 18 states (and DC). The Eighth
Amendment regulates the application of the death sentence, and is reserved for aggravated
murders that are committed by adults who are not mentally challenged. The Supreme Court
recently reduced the scope of executions that can be allowed. It ruled that a 70 IQ score
was not a convincing standard to determine if an inmate had the intelligence for defending
himself or accepting responsibility for actions.
A recent poll by ABC and Washington Post also revealed that more Americans are against
capital punishment than earlier. Up to 60% of those surveyed supported the death penalty,
though that was a significant reduction from the 80% 20 years ago in 1994. The Supreme
Court had also prevented capital punishment from being meted out to some rapists, juvenile
offenders and insane inmates, which shows a trend of gradual withdrawal from death
penalty. From the peak of 98 executions in 1999, 2013 only saw 39 executions in America.
Flawed Lethal Injection Executions
And there is another factor contributing to this too – the recent issues some states are
facing with lethal injections that are not performing their role in the way expected. Instead
of killing instantly, the modern lethal injection drugs put the inmate through apparent
physical agony before death, taking away the humane factor. European manufacturers have
stopped supplying the conventional execution drugs, causing states to turn to alternatives
that aren’t as effective. This has caused executions to be stayed.
The origin of capital punishment in the United States dates back to the American colonies
under British rule, before the Declaration of Independence. Capital punishment was the
penalty under the English common law for various kinds of felonies. While the execution
methods and crimes for which the death penalty was administered have changed through
the centuries, lethal injection has been the most preferred method since 1976.
However, according to a recent report, the state of Tennessee has found a way around the
controversies around lethal injection drugs and is bringing back the electric chair.
Death Penalty Errors Cannot be Reversed
The other unsettling matter with capital punishment is that flawed convictions, which are
irreversible. The most famous examples of these were in England in the early 1950s when
Welshman Timothy John Evans was innocently executed for the murder of his wife and
child. John Christie, who witnessed against Evans, confessed to the murder much later,
after the execution had taken place. In 1953, Derek Bentley, with IQ levels close to 70,
was falsely convicted and executed for a murder that was technically committed by his
accomplice. Evans and Bentley were posthumously pardoned.
According to an article in Time Magazine, new research has found that almost 4% of U.S.
capital punishment sentences are wrongful convictions, meaning that around 120 of
the roughly 3,000 inmates on death row in America are not guilty.
It Needs to Go
The appellate process in the U.S. has developed to a point where the U.S. Supreme Court
grants appellants a number of protections. The aim of these protections are intended to
ensure access to trial transcripts, the right to counsel, and the right to be free from
government retaliation for successful appeals.
Ultimately, there are more reasons to speak against capital punishment than for it. We
aren’t living in the times of the French Revolution where members of the aristocracy were
simply guillotined, but whatever be the mode of killing, the death sentence seems to be out-
of-place in a world where feelings and humaneness are as important as setting the record
straight. Many Americans look forward to the time when law firms and courts would not
have to utter the words, “capital punishment” or “death sentence”.