Crime, Punishment, and Retribution: Avoiding the Death Penalty

The media is engineered to capture an audience’s attention with strong headlines, and on the topic of crime and punishment, this is especially so. ‘Dale Cregan: father of murdered WPc says he should hang’, reports the Telegraph. ‘Dale Cregan trial verdict: Cop killer should ‘hang’ says father of murdered Pc Fiona Bone‘, states the Mirror. The Metro follows with ‘Dale Cregan should hang for murder of PCs, says father of victim‘. On a different case, headlines an article with ‘April’s mum: Mark Bridger should hang for killing my daughter‘. From how the articles portray themselves, newspaper readership is one bloody-minded collective, filled with righteous wroth and fanatical loathing in equal measure.

Granted, the two cases are heinous. There cannot be a legitimate case for condoning either convicted felon for their acts, and whether the two persons were found criminally insane or just plain bastards, they have to be removed from society to protect individuals within it. There has to be the fear of punishment to help deter crime, and even the use of punishment to appropriately match the crime. How much punishment is too great a topic to fit into this article, but it would be a great theme to address another time. For now, let us concentrate on these calls for the death penalty.

The death of a loved one, caused by the actions of another, is surely an emotionally unbalancing event which we all hope to avoid. In almost every sexual assault, rape, abduction, and murder case, there are friends and family who will wish for vengeance. The physical, emotional, and mental trauma carried from such crimes encourages our deepest condolences, sympathy, and empathy.

Frederick Seddon being sentenced to death by Justice Bucknill. This is the only known photograph of the death sentence being passed in an English court.

Frederick Seddon being sentenced to death by Justice Bucknill. This is the only known photograph of the death sentence being passed in an English court.

But before we don the black cap, we must show some restraint. Unlike Exodus 21:24, we do not have to demand an eye for an eye. The punishment does not have to match the crime, only fit it. There must be humane treatment of even the worst of society, and the law must be blind to personal vendetta and sanguinary zeal. To quote Aristotle, “law is reason free from passion”. We just cannot let our anger, our loss, and our retribution, take lives.

Looking below, you will see a map of all the countries that forbid, or allow, capital punishment in some form.

Blue - abolished the death penalty / yellow - abolished in all but exceptional circumstances / orange - abolished in practice / red - retainers of the death penalty

Blue – abolished the death penalty / lime – abolished in all but exceptional circumstances / orange – abolished in practice / red – retainers of the death penalty

As you can see, strong supporters of democratic societies do not favour the death penalty (except for parts of the USA – you may sigh). The two ideas are pretty mutually exclusive: a democratic government which exists to serve the people should resist the urge to terminate said people, even for the worst of crimes, and even if they support Chelsea. The idea of executing another person is such a chilling idea and no more appropriate, or acceptable, than torture or the revocation of habeas corpus. Even the biggest villain deserves a fair hearing, and a just, but fair, sentence.

An argument used against the death penalty is the possibility of innocence, especially when the evidence provided is not completely secure. The case of Derek Bentley showed the horror of hanging an individual who was posthumously pardoned after decades of lobbying. Not only is this a terrible crime to the victim of execution, and his family and friends, but to the country itself. The state does not have the responsibility to dictate when citizens can live and die – no democratic government should ever rule with sword in hand.

Instead, we need to do the best with what we have. We should not – cannot – torture, abuse, castrate, maim, or kill criminals. The judicial system has to remove those persons from society for our safety, based on a humane law system that can never fall into the dark slide of capital punishment. Through careful monitoring, even rehabilitation, those individuals may return into society. There are some that never will; their attempts for parole may fail and the nature of their crimes too great to ever be trusted in society again. What is most important from a judicial perspective is that these persons must be given the right to mend their ways. Making criminals dance the hemp fandago, even for the most despicable of crimes, can never be the way.

As for us – we have to try and be mature. We have to overcome our grief and honour the memories of those who have become victims of such crime. We must show ourselves superior to the crime and overcome the temptation to become part of it. Our society is stronger than that. Even as the media pulls hysterical headlines, and Facebook pages crop up demanding the death penalty, remember – execution is never the answer.

Sources and further reading:


2 thoughts on “Crime, Punishment, and Retribution: Avoiding the Death Penalty

  1. I really enjoyed this post for a couple of reasons. Personally, I’m fundamentally against capital punishment, but I can only imagine the overwhelming feeling of vengeance I would feel if someone harmed a loved one, so I’ve empathised with anyone who has called for it in their own situation. That dichotomy between my ethics and emptions has always been uneasy for me. Aristotle’s quote helps resolve that: “law is reason free from passion”. Also, I’m from a country who, like the UK, has a corrections system, but right next door is a country with a penal system, so this is a conversation that comes up a lot. Thank you so much for posting this.

  2. Great post, James. There is an natural temptation to demand punitive policies based on our fear and anger toward the Cregans of the world, though they are few and far between. Is it morally justified to take a life? I am no ethicist, but if there are adequate means to protect public safety through permanent incarceration, as Cregan is facing (dangerous offender), I wouldn’t think so, at least not in countries with corrections systems that give priority to public safety and rehabilitation over punishment. Invoking the death penalty would involve pandering to our hatred, sorrow and anger. And just like you shouldn’t email an ex while in that mindset, we probably shouldn’t be creating sentencing guidelines while in that state either (and my intention is not to minimize the experiences of those affected by violent crime, but just to demonstrate a point in the silliest way possible).

    In seriousness, there are few practical benefits of the death penalty that are not outweighed by the symbolic benefit of staying true to social values of restraint and justice.

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