Man is said to be logical. But our opinions often seem determined as much by emotion as by reason. We have all heard the rational pro and con arguments, yet most people’s views on capital punishment remain based on feelings and not facts.


When a person has taken a human life, say death penalty supporters, the only fair compensation is his own in return. Anything less is less than justice, and diminishes respect for human life. According to John Stuart Mill “…it is unreasonable to think that to take the life of a man who has taken that of another, is to show want of regard for human life…he who violates that right in another forfeits it for himself.” It is a straightforward argument – who shows no mercy deserves none. An eye for an eye.


But to abolitionists, state execution is murder by legal process. A murderer kills in a condition of unreasoning emotion. The law condemns to death with cold consideration. Some crimes, like the rape and murder of children, are so heinous that death alone seems sufficient. But the only way to fully repay such an atrocity would be to torture the murderer, or make him endure repeatedly the torments of death. Yet would even such barbaric acts bring comfort to victims’ relatives?


The Reverend Gerald Brown, who himself served a jail term for manslaughter and now ministers to convicts, says no. In his experience, the execution of murderers brings no satisfaction in the end, and perhaps leaving them to contemplate their horrible crimes is more painful than a quick death. To him, a true Christian acts as Jesus would have, and does not seek revenge. Father forgive them, for they know not what they have done. Vengeance is mine said the Lord, I shall repay.


Capital punishment is often said to deter murder, but there is no concrete evidence of this. This might seem counter-intuitive - surely the thought of death must deter some. But those who kill are rarely in a proper emotional state to calculate consequences. Even for those who are, decades of imprisonment may be as great a deterrent as the remote prospect of execution.


European countries have abolished the death penalty, yet their rates of violent crime have risen more slowly than crime overall. The United States is the only developed country with the death penalty. But it has by far the highest murder rate in the industrialized world, and murder rates there are highest in the southern states where most executions occur.


Blacks in the US are far more likely to be sentenced to death than whites for equivalent crimes. And since 1973 in the US, 78 people have been released from death row after evidence of their innocence emerged. If even America with its huge financial resources and elaborate legal guarantees has not been able to apply the death sentence fairly or consistently, what chance have poor countries like Jamaica?


To many there is no conceivably greater crime than the accidental execution of an innocent man by a state espousing fairness and humanity. This they see as the final triumph of injustice and brutality, and too high a price to pay for an unnecessary punishment.


What thoughts go through the mind of a man awaiting execution? The great novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky knew them well. When 27 he was arrested and charged with conspiracy against the Russian state. After 8 months in prison he and his alleged fellow conspirators were taken to be executed by a firing squad. At the last moment they were reprieved, but one of the group went permanently mad.


Dostoevsky was sent to a Siberian prison camp, and spent 4 years among convicted rapists and murderers. He described his experiences there in ‘Notes From The House of The Dead’, and took leave of prison with an anguished cry


“And how much youth lay uselessly buried in these walls, what mighty powers were wasted here in vain! After all, one must tell the whole truth : these men were exceptional men. Perhaps they were the most gifted, the strongest of our people. But their mighty energies were vainly wasted, wasted abnormally, unjustly, hopelessly. And who was to blame, whose fault was it?”


No great writer lived closer to the deepest of human experiences. If the test of a great author is the capacity to impose a vision on readers and transform their experiences, then he ranks with any writer who ever lived.


Dostoevsky asserted that ‘To kill for murder is an immeasurably greater evil than the crime itself.’ For him there was no agony greater than the certainty of death. The mental anguish suffered by a condemned man was ‘an outrage on the soul’. His logic is no more convincing than anyone else’s, but his books have an unmatched emotional intensity, none more so than his famous ‘Crime and Punishment’.


‘Crime and Punishment’ tells how Raskolnikov - a deluded, kind, handsome, arrogant university student - comes half-dreaming with a hatchet to murder an old woman money-lender and her sister. It is as much about redemption as murder, for Raskolnikov can not escape his conscience and eventually confesses his crime. During his 20 year prison sentence he undergoes the kind of spiritual transformation that Dostoevsky himself experienced in Siberia.


On a purely intellectual level it would be difficult to argue against Raskolnikov being executed. His is the kind of headline grabbing crime – the brutal axe murder of two defenseless old women - that stirs an instinctive desire for vengeance in even the mildest Christian hearts. Yet no one who has read the book could imagine the possible execution of Raskolnikov as anything but an affront to the dictates of civilized humanity.


Capital punishment is an issue which logic will never completely resolve. It will always divide societies, and even individuals. Yet if we are to err, should it not be on the side of mercy? As Dostoevsky wrote ‘Compassion is the essential, and perhaps the only law in the life of all humankind.’

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