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David T Breaker: Why the death penalty is wrong

Generally I'm a fan of direct democracy: trust the people, I say, for that is always better than to trust the self appointed expert, especially as so many of those who declare themselves experts and leaders are mere charlatans, spinning prose to hit psychological buttons and thus rally the support of the deceived (that's my explanation for socialism's success anyway). We after all "have not overthrown the divine right of Kings," as Macmillan once observed, "to surrender to the divine right of experts"; and goodness knows the "experts" feel they have divine right. I'm firmly in the Hannan camp, the words of Reagan summing it up: "we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule...but if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?" Quite.

Yet there is one small but significant spanner in the works of giving power direct to the public, and as the government launches its new "e-petition" website it has again reared its head with the campaign by Guido and now several Members of Parliament to reinstate the death penalty. It's something with significant public support - as all polls show - but it's something I just can't support, and something which greatly concerns me with direct democracy.

Now do not get me wrong, I am not going all soft and mushy here; I think serious crimes warrant serious punishment - which generally isn't being delivered now - and that punishment must be very public to act as a deterrent, but that does not necessarily mean the death penalty.

To argue against capital punishment can at times be hard. The supporters of capital punishment tend to rest their case on raw emotion, and in this instance they have by far the upper hand. There are of course a great many killers who, in the depths of our minds, even the most forgiving of souls cannot forgive. How can we forgive? (Forgiveness is not even within our gift, that gift resting solely with the victims). Who among us does not want to be rid of the Mira Hyndley and Ian Huntley types of this planet, to know that they have been served the ultimate punishment; who among us wouldn't feel some sense of great satisfaction, relief, justice? If we are honest we all would feel the world a better place. Yet our desire for satisfaction is not the important factor here, the relief of our anger of no consequence. Instead what is important is justice, and the successful operation of justice, both of which are incompatible with capital punishment. Our desire for revenge must take a back seat.

In law and order what matters is the minimisation of crime and the successful punishment of law breakers; the law exists to deter and to punish. (For lesser crimes also to rehabilitate, but for the heinous crimes we refer to on this topic I consider that inappropriate). Proponents of capital punishment like to claim that the death sentence can act as a deterrent, and if this were the case I'd be willing to consider it. If the sacrifice of a killer's life or even a thousand killers could be remotely proven to save even one innocent life then that, I agree, is a very good trade. But there is no evidence that capital punishment does deter crime: the murder rates are similar between territories with and without death sentences, and States that have abolished capital punishment - including some who later reintroduced it - have found no statistical change. Capital punishment does not deter murder.

In terms of successful delivery of justice however the death penalty stands as a major obstacle. Besides lengthy appeals costing millions it has been found that juries are more reluctant to deliver guilty verdicts if there is the possibility of the death sentence being delivered, the conscience requiring a far higher confidence in proof, and - with informants often related to murderers - capital punishment can also reduce people's willingness to contact or cooperate with police investigations. The result is that more criminals walk free, which is hardly our desired intention!

Yet the possibility of a lower conviction rate pales into insignificance compared to the other risk of capital punishment, the specter of wrongful conviction and thus the state sanctioned murder of an innocent. Now we will never know how many innocents are executed in those places where capital punishment still exists - though 15 death row inmates since 1992 have been exonerated in the USA thanks to DNA evidence that is only available in a minority of cases - but surely even a single instance is enough to decide against the practice. As confident as we can be we must accept that no system is 100% accurate; miscarriages of justice will always happen, but some aren't reversible, and with capital punishment we become murderers ourselves via the state.

It might give satisfaction but the death sentence doesn't work, and that is what truly matters.


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