So we’ve been doing some campaigning on the death penalty as UCLU Amnesty International. Following some particularly nasty cases in the US (Troy Davis last year and Reggie Clemons this year amongst others) we made it the focus of our Welcome Meeting. We watched a short film and tried to get everyone to out on a petition signing competition thing- which failed because of the rain. Since then we’ve ran a letter writing session on it and a film screening of the Troy Davis Documentary “A life in the Balance” followed by a Q&A session with Amnesty’s lead Death Penalty campaigner Kim Manning Cooper.
We’ve had a huge positive response but what personally struck me the more though, was the negative response. In and around all the campaigning we have done, anti-death penalty campaigning has seen the most resistance, and inspired the least support.
When some friends from countries like Singapore come out in favour of capital punishment it makes some sense. Singapore is a country who still retains it (1 out of 54) and these supporters have grown up in a culture which legitimises and accepts capital punishment.
British and European students in favour of capital punishment made less sense to me. We have not grown up in a similar culture – the Death Penalty in this country was abolished in 1965, the last execution being in 1964. No student I have spoken to was alive then – the likelihood is even their parents had not been born then. Indeed we’ve grown up in a time of greater compassion- the European Court of Human Rights has had increasing influence on the way prisoners are treated and political rhetoric, when we were growing up anyway, has been on being “tough on the causes of crime” and “hugging a hoodie”.
What then appears to have gone wrong? Well, we certainly seem to live in reactionary times. If someone doesn’t react quickly enough, then it is taken as a sign of failure. Everything from the police and politician response to the London riots of 2011 to our inability to respond quickly when it snows, is lambasted. Sometimes fairly. But sometimes reacting quickly isn’t all that it’s thought to be. Our knee-jerk emotional response should not come before a well-researched, well-reasoned, moral judgment.
This reactionary nature coupled with an anti-human rights rhetoric rife in the media and politics has led, I believe, in some part to this growth of pro-death penalty culture. Why should the evil paedophile rapist live after all?
Why is death penalty wrong?
So why should the evil paedophile rapist live? The following is by no means an exhaustive list of reasons against capital punishment, only my own:
1) Risk of miscarriages of justice. Capital punishment, unlike incarceration can never be reversed. All miscarriages of justice are grave errors- that is true. And we should be aiming at eliminating all miscarriages entirely. However, in the imperfect legal system we have, the risk of sending an innocent man or woman to hang or be electrocuted for a crime they did not commit, is one which is too high to take. Moreover, as much as incarceration is horrible in its own right, the loss of life itself is surely a much higher (and therefore unacceptable) penalty.
2) The deterrence argument is wrong. You all know America (largely, it varies from state to state) retains the death penalty. And we all know there’s no crime there right? Especially no violent crime.
My point being all the research and evidence points against the death penalty acting as any kind of deterrent- and that’s not based on my amazing sarcasm above. Visit the Amnesty website for more concrete facts.
3) The death penalty is basically state sanctioned murder- Lewis Lawes, warden of Sing Sing prison in New York in the 1920s said once: “As if one crime of such nature, done by a single man, acting individually, can be expiated by a similar crime done by all men, acting collectively.” Don’t like murder? Don’t authorise the state to carry it out in your name.
4) What is the point of crime and punishment? If you believe, like I do, it is to rehabilitate prisoners or make some reparation to the victim, or even to communicate as a society, that we do not approve of the accused’s actions, do we carry any of these functions out by sentencing people to death? (My answer is no).
5) Capital punishment desensitises and dehumanises the community as a whole. A progressive society has no place for capital punishment.
6) Finally, research shows there’s a whole lot more with the capital punishment is carried out in practice including racial bias, suspect trials and the ‘death row phenomenon’.
Just because we don’t have capital punishment in the UK and just because we may generally like ‘criminals’ we shouldn’t be any less enthusiastic about campaigning for its abolition. After all we do not stone people to death for alleged adultery in the UK and we may not generally like ‘adulterers’ but we still campaign without hesitation (as we should do).