Capital punishment is the execution of a person by the state as punishment for a crime. Over the ages capital punishment has been given to criminals by using various methods such as lethal injection, hanging, electrocution, gas chamber etc. The question in front of us is “Is capital punishment justified?” Death sentence as a punishment has been subject to controversies since long. The basic reason is the moral and humanitarian questions attached to it. For this, one needs to understand the death sentence by itself.
Capital punishment or death sentence being one of the harshest punishments known to man has taken a gradual humanised change over the years. This mode of punishment was prominently followed in most parts of the world, but has now been abolished in many countries. India seems to be stuck between the global trend to end death penalty and the nations that still follow it. It has taken a very safe ground by giving a minimal provision and leaving it to the discretion of the judiciary to award the punishment in special circumstances.
The question that is constantly debated upon is that when should capital punishment be awarded or should it be awarded at all in the first place? What sort of crime or offence would demand a capital punishment? Should heinous crimes like rape or murder attract death penalty? Or an abominable thief? Or should a serial killer with no conscience be executed? What could be the severity or degree of crime? Some say that life-imprisonment is an easy way out and it would also give chance to reform the criminal. Most of the people now feel that punishment for crimes like murders should not be death but some reformative or deterrent sentence. Death sentence cannot reform a criminal simply because death ends everything, it doesn’t leave any scope for reformation!
There is a huge uproar everywhere against capital punishment and death sentence, saying it is immoral and that it infringes on the inalienable ‘right of life’ of an individual. In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human rights, which is a pledge among nations to promote Fundamental Rights as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.
Article 5 of the Declaration states that no one shall be subjected to cruel and degrading punishment. Therefore abolitionists insist that capital punishment should be ruled out because it is cruel, inhuman and degrading. The governments which have abolished death sentence, find that there is no increase in the number of murders in the countries after the abolition. Some social reformers still feel that life imprisonment is a more severe kind of punishment. There are numerous arguments put forward against death sentence. The classic one is that society cannot show that killing is wrong by killing. Even Gandhiji said, “Hate the sin, not the sinner”. It is further added that the capital punishment is a vengeance rather than retribution and as such, is a morally dubious concept.
Moreover we talk about sanctity of life so isn’t the sanctity of victim’s life more important than the convict’s life. In our zeal to protect the rights of criminals, we should not minimise the rights of their victims. An innocent’s life should be valued over the offender’s. The most commonplace argument of all is that executing a murderer will not bring the victim back. Justice is not about bringing back the dead. It is about enforcing consequences of one’s own action. It is about preventing future misfortune and protecting the life of the vulnerable and about arming the weak.
Some people stress on the barbaric nature of the death penalty as a reason for its abolition, forgetting that the acts committed by the people sentenced is not exactly humane. Moreover, the death sentence is more humane and easy to undergo than life imprisonment since it ends the torture of the criminals in few minutes as opposed to the torture he would undergo in prisons for a long period of time. Our late President APJ Kalam in his book ‘Turning Point’ wrote that as a President his role was to get every case examined and establish the truth against those waiting for the gallows. He also went on to find that almost all the case pending had a social and economic bias attached to it. In the Afzal Guru case the way the execution was carried out in utmost secrecy led to an unprecedented move on the part of the state, where it was said that in trying to steamroll a morally bankrupt opposition and a media campaign of surpassing banality, the government has revealed both its Achilles heel and the cruel side. An Oscar winning move (foreign language category), ‘The Secret in their Eyes’ has also outlined the various aspects related to capital punishment.
In the public discourse there is a belief that if we hang the murderer or hang the rapist than we will deter all future crimes. This is rather a consequentialist argument, satisfying the end without an appropriate means. A country where free legal aid is at best a mockery to the system, there is no denying the fact that most of those awaiting death sentence are of weaker background.
The debate over capital punishment has been raging on for countless number of years. Yes, it is right that death sentence is not the solution to the increase in crimes. But, at the same time we should not ignore the fact that capital punishment has been used for thousands of years due to the physiological fear it inflicts on the people who witness and learn about the death penalty. On the other hand, there isn’t enough evidence that death penalty has any effect on the crime rate. A case in point is the death penalty for heinous rape crime. As yet there doesn’t seem to be any visible effect that rape crimes have reduced after institution of death penalty. Neither there is any evidence that there are more rape crimes in countries that doesn’t impose death penalty on rape convicts. The argument that the use of capital punishment helps reduce crime and alter the minds of future criminals to deter them against committing heinous crimes, doesn’t pass muster on the basis of available evidence. And there is significant argument against this penalty. World over, there isn’t yet a completely foolproof criminal justice system. There is always some chance of miscarriage of justice and a death penalty once executed can’t be even partially undone. It is felt that fair, rigorous and strict implementation of existing laws leading to faster rates of non-capital punishment with zero tolerance towards corruption and faulty investigation is a better solution to arrest or even reverse rise in crimes.
However, India still has the provision of death penalty in its statutes. But, it also restricts it with the proviso that it should be imposed in only the rarest of the rare cases after proper investigation of the criminal’s offence, and many layers of judicial appeals culminating with mercy petition to the President.