It is the punishment with the strongest deterrent force, according to some of its proponents; it is not a penalty, but a manifestation of cruelty, an affront to humanity, according to those opposed to it. We are speaking of capital punishment, the harshest method of punishment. Capital punishment, having a variety of methods including hanging, beheading, firing squad, electrocution, and lethal injection, is now one of the most controversial legal issues. This method of punishment, which dates back to almost the beginning of human history, is being employed by a number of states today. So much so that 2015 saw the highest number of executions recorded in the last 26 years, based on information provided by the Amnesty International. (1)
Capital punishment has been outlawed in the nations of Europe and Latin America, which are considered democratic countries. However, this improper method of punishment is still employed in the United States, Guatemala and the Caribbean. Similarly, capital punishment is currently in effect in some democracies in Asia and Africa.
It is remarkable that with only a few exceptions, almost all of the countries in the world which have had the highest number of executions are those regarded as antidemocratic or considered as not fully democratic.
Capital punishment is very common in non-democratic countries. For instance, in 2014, there were 1,652 executions across the world, more than 1,000 of which were committed by communist China. Five hundred prisoners were executed in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen and North Korea. Although capital punishment is more common in South Asia and East Africa on the surface, the United States is also a significant exception in the big picture.
The history of the United States is full of many affronts to humanity, which will be remembered with shame on this subject. Between the years of 1882 and 1920, 4,742 people were hanged or lynched without trial. A total of 3,345 people – among them many African Americans – were hanged, burned or beaten to death in appalling acts of violence after the American Civil War.
Capital punishment is still in practice in many states in the United States even today. The number of executions in the last 40 years reached 1,422 across the United States as a whole. There are currently 3,000 people on death row. While a total of 28 executions took place in the United States last year, the country has carried out 12 executions earlier this year. (2) The ubiquitous practice of capital punishment is very remarkable in the United States, despite it being considered a democratic country.
On the grounds that it breaches democratic practices and human rights, capital punishment has been repealed in European countries; however, it has not yet been possible to see the same attitude from the United States. Interestingly enough, the official reports prepared by the United States harshly criticize many other countries on the grounds of violations of democracy and human rights.
It is a prime requisite for the United States, critical of other countries, to review its approach on capital punishment and to make the necessary changes as a matter of urgency.
First of all, capital punishment is one of the most challenging decrees for a court, which seeks to administer justice. Since court proceedings for the execution of a defendant may often be confusing and intended to reach a given conclusion many convictions are based on debatable and sometimes dubious evidence. Moreover, the techniques of judicial review change over time. Indeed, the FBI reviewed a total of 3,000 cases dating back to before the year 2000 and determined that the conclusions arrived at in 90% of these cases were inaccurate.
Further, extralegal considerations may be often influential in the adjudication of capital punishment. In this regard, the jury system, which is particularly a part of Anglo-Saxon law, is a procedure vulnerable to misjudgments. Death sentences may be relative and vary depending on the personal prejudices of the members of the jury, the way they were brought up, their ethic identities, or their gender and age. For instance, whereas African Americans make up only 12% of the population, they represent 41% of those executed.
One of the important matters on the issue of capital punishment is DNA evidence, which has allowed more than one person to be acquitted a year since 1992 in the United States. (3) If it were not for DNA test technology, there would have been a good many people wrongly put to death. The majority of these people were incarcerated for no reason for many years, which itself is another injustice that should not be overlooked.
This unjust punishment, that has no room for “repentance” or “self-education,” is not something for which amends can be made simply by saying, “We have made a terrible mistake.” Murdering an innocent person with the sanction of the state is a savage practice.
There are important duties incumbent upon independent and non-profit institutions in the United States in this regard. For instance, the “Innocence Project” – instituted in 1992 – has secured the release of 329 people to date who were wrongly convicted (you can access detailed information about those who’ve been saved thanks to this project from their website). 18 of those people who’ve been saved were on Death Row and 28 of those released had plead guilty simply to avoid a harsher sentence. It is beyond doubt that putting innocent people on Death Row due to judicial or technical errors has the awful potential to result in irreversible consequences and the most appalling injustice. Obviously, there can be no compensation if an innocent person has been put to death.
The most significant claim advanced by the proponents of capital punishment is that capital punishment lowers crime rates. In fact, this is a deeply misleading conclusion. As a matter of fact, there has been no increase in the homicide rate in those states of the United States where capital punishment has been abolished.
The United States should be a role model to the world with its efforts to annul capital punishment. Politicians and judicial institutions should act responsibly in this regard and capital punishment should cease to be a method of punishment supported and promoted by the state.
It is a matter of urgency to launch a campaign against capital punishment under the umbrella of the United Nations. Being the vanguards of this campaign is what befits the leaders of the United States. It should not be forgotten that it is education that will decrease crime rates, not capital punishment. Capital punishment cannot substitute for the influence of a good conscience.
Adnan Oktar's piece in EKurd Daily & The Hans India: