The death penalty: where do you draw the line?

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Today, you will undoubtedly have a grounded opinion about the death penalty. While scrolling through the world of social media, you will be enraged by seemingly absurd perspectives, and will often respond in a similarly fervent manner. But why are you so sure? The concept of capital punishment reverberates with complex moral and social implications. Why then do so many people jump to unequivocally defend or condemn individuals who face such a sentence? Perhaps the answer lies in a lack of detailed knowledge. So, let’s start by exploring the central arguments surrounding the death penalty.

The idea that guilty people deserve to be punished according to the severity of their crimes could be seen to uphold the necessity of capital punishment. While the concept of ‘an eye for an eye’ is rather outdated, it’s reasonable to believe that the most atrocious crimes inflicted upon the most innocent victims deserve the most unforgiving  punishment. But something of this magnitude can’t be so easily simplified. Retribution stands on the basis that only the guilty should be punished, so in a system where the innocent can potentially bear the irreversible consequences, this argument fails. There’s also the question of whether or not retribution is purely fuelled by vengeance, and brutalises society and the criminal justice system – and if this matters. Essentially, the jury is still out when considering retribution as a definitive argument for death penalty.

The concept of deterrence is simple; imposing the death penalty as a consequence for certain crimes will stop people committing them because they don’t want to die. The counter argument is also simple; there’s no proof that it actually works at all, or that it’s more of a deterrent than imprisonment. Yet again, the theories behind these ideas are complex. In defence of deterrence are the ideas that humans fear death above anything else, and that it is morally acceptable to kill a criminal if it stops innocents dying at their hands. However, this is undermined by the fact that some criminals aren’t always entirely in control of their actions, and hence can’t be deterred by death, and that innocents can be killed through wrongful conviction. Also, there is of course the ‘value of human life’ issue, which states that everyone has the right to life, no matter their criminal actions. As such, the death penalty violates this right. Therefore, deterring future crimes through executions is morally unsound. However, there is the thought that people who commit particularly heinous crimes forfeit this right. This leaves you at a moral crossroads, and reveals that deterrence is not the straightforward argument it initially appears to be.

This is another highly circumstantial argument. It states that the death penalty provides some kind of final vindication or service of justice for the families of victims. However, every person responds differently to loss. Assuming that the death of a perpetrator will provide closure disregards individual circumstances and hence cannot justify the sentence.

While not existing to entirely support or abolish the death penalty, the idea of personal growth in criminals sentenced to death is intriguing. It puts forward the question of whether or not criminals should be pardoned if they develop into exemplary citizens in the years of appeals leading up to execution.

At this point, you should be confused. To perhaps give these moral ideas more grounding, let’s look at how they relate to two recent cases; the execution of drug smugglers, Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, and the sentencing of Boston bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

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In the lead up to the execution of Sukumaran and Chan, the arguments of deterrence and rehabilitation were at war. The Australian government and others supporting the pair emphasised that they had transformed through art, religion, remorse and their time spent in prison supporting other inmates. The main point was that, as changed men, they should be given a second chance. Joko Widodo’s Indonesian government argued that this didn’t absolve their crimes, and that the death penalty was and is the most effective way of combating the regions drug problems. The Sydney Morning Herald identified the fallibility of this argument, quoting John Ryan, CEO of drug research organisation Pennington Institute, saying, “The scale of people who get caught drug trafficking and the scale of the drug market proves most people think they will get away with it.” They also refer to a study which revealed that Singapore’s significant use of the death penalty didn’t lead to a reduction in drug use or accessibility – it instead increased. From this, you would have to claim that the death penalty is wrong…right?

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Let’s take a look at the Tsarnaev case before you decide. Tsarnaev’s verdict was handed down for his role in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings which killed three people and left over 260 injured. A significant factor in his sentencing was that he supposedly showed no remorse for his crimes. The perspectives of many survivors and victim’s families seems to be backed by the notion of retribution. The Guardian quoted one survivor saying, “he’s going to hell, and he’s going to get there early” and another who said she would “be there every step of the way” through Tsarnaev’s execution. However, the parents of the youngest victim of the attack embody the counter argument for closure, referring to the ongoing grief that drawn out appeals would bring them. Despite this opinion, you may be feeling as if this individual deserves the harshest punishment possible.

Say these circumstances were swapped. What if Tsarnaev was unimaginably remorseful and recreated himself in prison? What if Sukumaran and Chan showed no regret for the detriment that drug smuggling eventually has on people’s lives? Perhaps you can’t be as sure of your own convictions and moral standing when retribution, deterrence and closure are wrapped up in repentance. Things get even more tangled when nationality comes into play. While the Tsarnaev case has clearly made international headlines, some have pointed out that Australia’s concern with the death penalty has conveniently diminished.

Looking at the issue in this way forces us to ask if any nation can impose such an absolute sentence when it can be dependent on such particular factors. Before you choose your side, firstly consider where you draw the line – the severity of the crime or the remorse of the perpetrator.


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