A Case Against Capital Punishment

“Justice has prevailed”, tweeted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on the 20th of March, 2020, nearly 6 hours after the four men convicted of the gang rape and murder of a 23-year old, famously called Nirbhaya- the fearless one- were hanged in Tihar jail. As the country joins the Prime Minister in rejoicing at the execution of the convicts, I ask you this: Is capital punishment really the answer?

Execution of criminals as punishment for their offence has existed since the beginning of civilization and there was often no alternative form of deterrence of criminals, until the developed prison systems rose up in the nineteenth century. Death penalty has gone from the guillotine in nineteenth century France to hanging and more recently to electrocution and lethal injections, over the years.

Currently, 106 countries in the world have abolished capital punishment either in law or in practice. India is among the 56 retentionist countries.

The case against capital punishment is two-fold: the ethics perspective and the question of the success rate.

As per the ethics argument, human life is valuable and everyone is born with a right to live, and a death sentence violates this right. Moreover, violence cannot be retributed with violence; it is vengeance and not justice. Furthermore, according to Amnesty International, “The death penalty legitimizes an irreversible act of violence by the state and will inevitably claim innocent victims.” Also, several Women’s Rights Activists claim that demanding death penalty for rape equates rape to murder, asserting that a woman’s life is only worth her “honour”.

The second view questions capital punishment’s effects as a deterrent. Scientists agree, by an overwhelming majority, that the death penalty has no deterrent effect. In fact, many experts claim that capital punishment merely acts as that one spectacular punishment, that doesn’t really work. A study in an issue of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology by a Sociology professor and a graduate student at the University of Colorado-Boulder examines the opinions of leading criminalogists on the deterrence of capital punishment. The authors report that 88.2% of respondents do not think that the death penalty deters murder. Moreover, rape victims are less likely to report their rapists if such a punishment is put in place, possibly since an overwhelming majority of rapists have some previous association with their victims (be it a relative or a friend). Also, it acts as an incentive for rapists to kill their victims to prevent the crime from being reported.

Another aspect to be considered is the discriminatory nature of the death row. Capital punishment seems to disproportionately sentence those in the minortiy group and grossly disregards mental illnesses. Death row also spends a huge chunk of tax payer money and diverts resources from genuine crime control.

Moreover, one of the convicts of the Nirbhaya case was a minor at the time of the crime and was tried as such and was in a reform facility for three years. Many plead the Supreme Court to view him as an adult considering the nature of his crime. These pleas were denied. However, post the Delhi gang rape case, Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act was passed in 2015, which would allow a Juvenile Justice Board to decide whether a juvenile convict in the age group of 16–18 should be tried as an adult, making the said age group a sort of grey area. This amended law faced a lot of criticism with claims of its contradiction to international standards, and Child Rights Activists and Women Rights Activists calling the bill a regressive step. Many experts and activists have claimed this response to the gang rape case a creation of media sensationalization of the issue.

Experts agree that the best solution is the swiftness and consistency of conviction, in addition to a fewer number of perpetrators escaping.

So, the next time you cheer the government on for its death sentence, ask yourself if it does anything but provide instant gratification for vengeance.