“To Make Live and Let Die”: the State of Capital Punishment

With news of the recent governor-issued moratorium on the death penalty in my former home of Washington State, I have found it an interesting time to explore the reality of capital punishment today. With this moratorium, Washington joins seven other states under either a de facto or de jure suspension and echoes the on-going trend towards abolition of the practice on a global level.

In 2012 and 2013, 21 countries executed people, with China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United States playing the largest part. In 2012, 1722 death sentences were applied in 58 countries. In the US, the majority of states who still utilize the death penalty do so only for convictions of first degree or aggravated murder. Non-violent crimes such as drug trafficking are punishable by death in certain countries, though there is a steady downward trend; in 2011 China removed 13 crimes from the list of those eligible for execution. Amnesty International, while lauding the move generally, labelled it “legal housekeeping”, as the offences were rarely punished with the death penalty.

But just how popular is the use of capital punishment in those countries that continue to utilize it? A recent government-issued survey in Japan suggests that when the public is given an “informed choice” on the death penalty, more people are opposed to its use. Popularity in the United States hovers at or slightly above 60 per cent, with similar numbers reflected in the most recent poll in Washington State – though the expectation is that the moratorium will be generally supported as it was in previous states, such as Illinois. The worldwide trend has been towards abolition: for example, 111 countries supported the most recent UN call for a global moratorium.

The regimes which actively maintain capital punishment systems support it based on a number of arguments, most notably: general deterrence, retributive punishment for crime, closure for those affected by the crime, and incapacitation. The less tangible and yet deeply-held pillars of the “pro”-camp is effective retribution. As when Malcolm tells King Duncan of the execution of the traitor Thane in Macbeth, “nothing in his life became him like the leaving it”, this firm belief in the retributive capacity of the death penalty supports the idea it will provide both a sense of closure and fulfil the duties of the state.  

On the other side, abolition is supported on the platforms of the possibility of error in conviction, the lacking or incomplete evidence displaying that the death penalty has the desired deterrent effect, and questions of the role of the state in punishment. Terms such as “state sanctioned revenge” are readily utilized in response to the morally dubious arguments for punitive and retributive actions on the part of a government. Recently, debate over the capacity for execution to qualify as cruel and unusual punishment has resurfaced following the shortage of “lethal injection” drugs in the United States.

The debate over capital punishment hinges on multiple rational and emotional arguments, some of which are hotly contested, such as its calculable deterrent effect (or, indeed in some academic circles, whether there is an increase in homicides following moratoriums). It is the more ethically-complex and personal issues of closure and performative punishment that can be most unyielding, however. From the abolitionist perspective, the flaws in the administration of justice alone invite such serious criticism of the application of death sentences, especially considering that as of 2013, the Innocence Project reports 312 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States, and other organizations indicate that there is strong evidence for at least ten post-humous exonerations. And when one recognizes the severity of these numbers, it becomes easier to justify at the very least revisiting the current system, if not our own perceptions on what sentences deliver actual justice.

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