Vengeance or Justice?
Published: Sunday | November 23, 2008

Man claims to be rational, but our opinions are determined as much by emotion as reason. And, for all the logical pros and cons, most people's views on capital punishment are based on feelings and not facts.

When a man 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's a straightforward argument - he 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 passion. The law condemns to death with cold consideration. Some crimes - like the rape and murder of children - are so heinous, that death alone seems insufficient. But the only way to repay such an atrocity in full would be endlessly repeated torture. Yet, would even such cruelty 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. Indeed, leaving them to contemplate their horrible crimes is perhaps 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; I will repay, saith the Lord.

No concrete evidence


From the purely practical angle, there is no concrete evidence that capital punishment deters murder. This might seem counter-intuitive - surely, the thought of death must deter some. But people who kill are rarely in a proper emotional state to calculate consequences. And, for those who are, decades of imprisonment may be as great a deterrent as the remote prospect of execution.

European Union 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 America has by far the highest murder rate in the industrialised world, and murder rates are highest in the southern states where most executions occur.

US blacks are far more likely to be sentenced to death than whites for equivalent crimes. Since 1973, more than 100 Americans have been released from death row after evidence of their innocence emerged. If even America, with its huge financial resources and elaborate legal guarantees, cannot apply the death sentence fairly, how can poor and disorganised Jamaica?

In truth, the current death penalty debate is probably a gigantic red herring waste of time and energy. International bodies like the United Nations and the EU are increasingly trying to stamp out the practice, and their legal and financial clout means they will very likely succeed. Who wants to bet that no Jamaican will ever again be executed by the state, no matter the results of the parliamentary vote on Tuesday?

Repeat offenders

It would be far better if our journalists and parliamentarians focused on proven crime prevention strategies that can actually be implemented, such as three strikes you're out laws, and building more prisons for repeat offenders. But maybe the death penalty is one of those issues which a society has to resolve, if only in theory, before moving on.

Now to some, there could be no greater crime than the accidental execution of an innocent man by a state espousing fairness and humanity. To them, this would be the ultimate triumph of injustice and brutality, and too high a price to pay for an unnecessary punishment.

A man awaiting execution

What thoughts go through the mind of a man awaiting execution? Fyodor Dostoevsky knew them well. When 27 he was arrested for conspiracy against the Russian state. After eight 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, and one of the group went permanently mad.

Dostoevsky spent four years in a Siberian prison camp among rapists and murderers, describing these experiences in Notes From The House of The Dead. He 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 unmatched emotional intensity, none more so than Crime and Punishment.


It tells how Raskolnikov - a deluded, kind, handsome, arrogant university student - comes half-dreaming with a hatchet to murder an old woman moneylender and her sister. It's as much about redemption as murder, for Raskolnikov cannot escape his conscience and eventually confesses his crime. There being no death penalty in tsarist Russia, Raskolnikov in prison 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 kind of headline grabbing crime - the brutal axe murder of two defenceless old women - stirs an instinctive desire for vengeance in even the mildest Christian hearts. Yet, no one who reads the book can imagine the possible execution of Raskolnikov as anything but an affront to the dictates of civilised humanity.

Capital punishment is an issue which logic will never completely resolve. It will always divide societies, and even individuals. And, of course, it's easy for those untouched to indulge in metaphysical speculations. If, God forbid, any of my close relatives were murdered, maybe I, too, would be satisfied by nothing less than the painful death of their killer.

In the end, none of us can be sure our views on the issue are correct. And, if we are to err, should it not be on the side of mercy? Our daily count of gruesome murders show there are many individuals among us who lack all human sympathy. Yet, surely, as a collective nation, we should agree with Dostoevsky - "Compassion is the essential, and perhaps the only law."

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