A Deadly Debate - Taboo Week


By Nicole Stinson

Photo by Patrick Feller.

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; should murder mean a death sentence?

Dividing the world, the death penalty has been abolished by approximately two-thirds of countries across the globe, while a remaining third still use it as a valid form of criminal punishment.

Contrary to the rest of the world, two-thirds of American states still support the death penalty. Legalized methods of execution include lethal injection, electrocution, gas chambers, hanging, and firing squad.

Last week in Texas, Nidal Malik Hasan was sentenced to death by lethal injection for the murder of 13 unarmed people at Fort Hood military base.

In July this year, New York re-sentenced street gang member Ronell Wilson to death for the murder of two undercover police officers. Originally, Wilson had been sentenced to death in 2007 but an in appeal in 2010 had this decision overturned in. The decision, like a Newton’s cradle, has now been reversed again, Wilson’s life in the balance.

However, Brian Evans, Director of Death Penalty Abolition Campaign at Amnesty International USA believes that in the next five years there will be less American states using capital punishment.

Evans tells BTR that, “next year New Hampshire and Delaware seem the most likely, and some western states like Colorado, Kansas, Montana and Nebraska are also real possibilities.”

“California may pursue another ballot initiative to repeal the death penalty, as might Oregon as well,” he says.

Maryland is the most recent state to abolish the death penalty. It is the sixth state in six years and the 18th state overall to abandon capital punishment.

International Law permits the use of the death penalty but only if the sentence has been decided through a competent court process. Article 6 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states, “In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes.”

“I believe states or countries retain the death penalty because they believe it is politically popular, or simply that it is too much of a political challenge to repeal it,” says Evans.

After 18 months without the death penalty, Vietnam has re-instated it with the execution of a man convicted of murder last month. The country has another 580 inmates on death row.

Despite being permitted by international law, Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, has been urging that country members of the United Nations move towards abolishing the death penalty.

In a 2012 July press release, he wrote, “The taking of life is too absolute, too irreversible, for one human being to inflict it on another, even when backed by legal process.”

For some this irreversibility is exactly what they want, as for some victims, permanence is comforting.

“It does not take a study to know that a death penalty is the only sentence that will insure that the murderer never kills again,” Steve Stewart, a prosecutor for Clark County, Ind., tells BTR.

“I believe that there are some defendants who have earned the ultimate punishment our society has to offer.”

Kent Scheidegger, the Legal Director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation shares similar views.

“An executed murderer will absolutely never kill again,” he tells BTR. “Life-sentenced murderers sometimes do, such as within prison, “outsourcing” the hit or after being released due to ill-advised parole decisions or prison overcrowding litigation”.

“The stated reasons in support of the death penalty are usually that it deters crime and/or provides solace for victims’ families, yet there is no evidence that executions are any more of a deterrent than other kinds of punishments,” says Evans.

“In United States, there is a direct correlation between the death penalty and the murder rate,” says David Bright, a forensic psychologist and criminology lecturer at the University of New South Wales.

“States which have the death penalty tend to have a higher murder rate, which is the opposite to what would be expected if the death penalty had any deterrent value,” he says.

Some scholars believe that there is a correlation between the state’s support for the death penalty and their population’s lack of respect for human life, a breeding ground for potential murderers. How can the state argue that murder is wrong, when there is state-sanctioned killing through the death penalty?

The Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit research organization, has found that higher murder rates exist in American states where the death penalty is used. The difference to non-death- penalty states ranges from 18 to 44 percent since 2000.

Brandon Garrett and Stephen Braga, professors of Law at the University of Virginia, discussed the dangers of executing people later found to be innocent at the UN conference ‘Moving Away from the Death Penalty — Wrongful Convictions’ in June.

“The exoneration of death row inmates based on DNA evidence has had a huge impact on the death penalty debate,” Garret tells BTR. “Some assumed that with the extra procedures in death penalty cases and the attention such cases receive, that death sentences were immune from error.”

“Now we know they are not and the same types of human errors that can occur in any criminal case can occur in a capital case”.

Garret, in his study, found that of 250 DNA-based exoneration cases, 18 had been sentenced to death.

Stewart, however, argues, “the inevitability of a mistake should not serve as grounds to eliminate the death penalty any more than the risk of having a fatal wreck should make automobiles illegal.”

The finality of death fuels both sides of the debate. Death does protect society from murderers, as they cannot kill beyond the grave. Death also prevents those convicted from ever being released if they are exonerated.

An eye for and eye, a tooth for a tooth but what if that eye is not for an eye and that tooth not for a tooth? Are some lives worth more than others? Try proving that beyond reasonable doubt and you are walking on taboo territory.