Monday, 19 January 2015

The Morality of Capital Punishment                      

I think I am correct in saying that since the beginning of time, the issue of whether or not the executing of criminals has been a question of morality. In other words, is it against our morals as decent human beings to take away a person’s life because he or she killed someone else? 

Killing is justified when it is done in self-defense or to save another person therefore the death penalty does not punish people for killing, but rather it punishes people for murder. I am not saying that all murder should be punishable by death.

Second degree murder for example may best be viewed as the middle ground between first-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. The exact definition of second degree murder varies between jurisdictions, but there are a few common elements that second degree murder shares across jurisdictions.

What separates first degree murder from second degree murder is the perpetrator's mental state at the time of the killing.

There are three typical circumstances where the charge of second degree murder would apply. They are; a killing done impulsively without premeditation but with malice aforethought, a killing that results from an act intended to cause serious bodily harm and a killing that results from an act that demonstrates the perpetrators depraved indifference to human life.

Those kinds of murder are considered very serious. In Canada, the maximum penalty before a person can apply for parole is first degree murder. But that same sentence can be given for second degree murder also.

In Alaska, a person convicted of second degree murder can be imprisoned from 10 to 99 years.   In Connecticut, someone convicted of second degree murder can be sentenced to life without parole.


Quite frankly, I don’t think that we should consider the religious aspect of that question because a person can be an atheist and still have morals just as a person going to church or any other place of worship can have no morals.

Further, I don’t think we should look into the legal aspect as to whether or not it is legal to execute such criminals because legally that right exists in countries that have the death penalty for murder or terrorism.

The question that nags us is still with us. That question being; “Can the death penalty possibly be a morally acceptable punishment for crimes of first degree murder or terrorism?” 

Arguments commonly made for supporting the death penalty are as follows: 1. to serve as example to other would-be criminals, 2. to deter them from committing murder or terrorist acts, 3. to punish the criminal for his/her act, 4. to obtain retribution on behalf of the victims.  Let’s look at these reasons more closely.


Does executing murderers really deter others from committing murders? I think I am safe in saying that some people are deterred from committing a murder when they realize that their lives can be forfeited. But does it overwhelmingly deter others who might be thinking of committing a murder?

No issues raised by the controversy of the death penalty have been more hotly contested that the focus on the efficiency of the death penalty as a deterrence. Unfortunately, all of the empirical research on the deterrence factor so far published is inconclusive.

Some murderers are not deterred because they believe that that they will really get away with their murder. Others believe that they can successfully claim insanity so that they can be sent to a mental hospital instead of being executed.  Others don’t care at all whether or not they are executed.

Scientific studies have consistently failed to demonstrate that executions deter people from committing crime any more than long prison sentences do. Moreover, states without the death penalty have much lower murder rates than the South which accounts for 80% of US executions and has the highest regional murder rate. When Canada replaced the death penalty with a sentence of 25 years to life, the murder rate became lower.

Does this mean that life in prison is more of a deterrent from murder than a death sentence? A survey of experts from the American Society of Criminology, the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, and the Law and Society Association showed that the overwhelming majority did not believe that the death penalty is a proven deterrent to homicide. Over 80% believe the existing research fails to support a deterrence justification for the death penalty. Similarly, over 75% of those polled do not believe that increasing the number of executions, or decreasing the time spent on death row before execution, would produce a general deterrent effect.

Research reported in Homicide Studies, Vol. 1, No.2, May 1997, indicates that executions may actually increase the number of murders, rather than deter murders. Could the reason be that suicide by execution is what prompts some to commit murder?   If you think that isn’t so, consider the fact that a great many mentally ill people deliberately waving a knife run towards police officers with guns drawn do it knowing that they will be shot and  killed. That is called suicide by police.  

Research with respect to the special protection given to police officers by awarding the death penalty to those who kill police officers on duty has shown that there doesn’t appear to be any evidence of a deterrence effect on police killings in death penalty jurisdictions as opposed to abolitionist states. These killers of police officers are to some degree mentally ill and the possibility of being killed themselves isn’t really a deterrent.

Take the case of Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the gunman who shot two police officers to death point blank in their heads on December 20, 2014. When he was running from other police officers and ran into a subway station, he called out to them, “Why don’t you shoot me?”  Rather than face life in prison, he shot himself. This loser knew what it would be like in prison since he had previously spent two years in prison for gun possession. If he wanted to commit suicide by police, he would have shot it out with the police.  I think he suspected that if he did shoot it out with the police, he would only be wounded and still end up in prison for life so for this reason, he shot himself.  A similar occurrence happened on the Ambassador Bridge that connects Windsor to Detroit recently. A 22-year-old man ran towards police officers with a handgun pointed at them. He shouted at them, “Why haven’t you shot me yet?” He was lucky. They only shot him in the arm.

Congressman Paul G. Rogers who in the course of arguing for the death penalty for anyone who is convicted of bombing public facilities; said that the death penalty would deter other terrorists.  Give me a break.

Does the death penalty really deter terrorists?  I think not. I believe that their ultimate goal is to go to heaven where 72 virgins will be waiting for them. That is why so many of these zealots choose to be suicide bombers. They simply want to kill as many men, women, children and babies as they can before they rise up to that great imaginary harem in the sky where all those woman are waiting for them. If there really are 72 virgins waiting for them, I hope they are all over 80 years of age.  

Israel had the right idea at first. They imprisoned the terrorists instead of executing them. Then they released a thousand imprisoned terrorists just to get the body of a murdered soldier back. They got the soldier’s body back and some of those former terrorists who were released are now terrorists again.

This kind of stupidity was what I feared would happen when I first addressed the UN Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders at the UN headquarters in Geneva in 1975. I recommended executing them. Then in 1980, when I addressed the UN Congress in Caracas, I again recommended death as punishment for terrorists. And again in 1985, while I addressed the UN Congress in Milan, I recommended executing terrorists. That speech was later broadcasted all over Italy.  If Israel had executed those terrorists they captured who murdered their citizens, those released terrorist wouldn’t be committing more acts of terrorism.

I will say this for the Americans. When they capture a terrorist who commits a horrendous crime, such as Timothy McVeigh who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma, they won’t hesitate to execute him. And if they aren’t executed, they will be sent to prison for the rest of their lives. And no threat by other terrorists will ever, ever get them released. And when they die in prison, there won’t be 72 virgins waiting for them since according to them, that is only the reward for Muslims who die in battle.  And when these terrorists are rotting in prison, perhaps they will wonder if it was really worth it.  Perhaps that possibility of rotting in prison for nothing will deter some of the would-be terrorists. But then again, perhaps not since like murderers, they think they will never be caught.

Punish the criminal for his/her act of murder

There is no question that executing a murderer is punishment but which punishment is greater, death or life in prison?  That question is easy to answer. It is life in prison, especially if the murderer is a young man or a young woman. The punishment lingers on and on for years until the prisoner dies of old age. He or she will spend their nights in a cell, their days with undesirables and what really hurts is when they become friends with some fellow prisoners and see them being released back into society while they remain behind. Death by execution admittedly lingers on while waiting for their execution but when it comes; their suffering finally comes to an end.

I remember back in 1972 when I was invited by prison authorities to tour the prisons in California. I spoke to a prisoner who was on death row in the San Quentin prison and asked him which he would prefer—death in the gas chamber or life in prison. He said he would prefer death in the gas chamber. He said he then wouldn’t have to suffer anymore.  

Of course, it is extremely important that the condemned prisoners aren’t executed in a manner that will make them suffer during their executions even though there are some murderers whom we would like to make them suffer during their executions. 

In Great Britain, public executioner Albert Pierrepoint developed a hanging technique that was specifically tailored to each person’s height and weight. Pierrepoint’s hanging method resulted in an almost instantaneous death because the condemned person’s neck was immediately broken st the end of the drop. This technique is used by Westernized countries.

After the Second World War ended, a great many Nazi war criminals were hanged. Many of them dangled at the end of the rope for some considerable time while they were slowly choking to death. The ten major war criminals convicted and sentenced to death at the Nuremberg Tribunal took between ten to twenty-four minutes to die. Many other war criminals in that era were dropped only 12 inches so that they would slowly strangle to death at the end of their rope. In Iran, they aren’t dropped. They are hoisted by a crane upwards were they can be seen flailing their legs by the public. 

Unfortunately, some condemned prisoners in the United States who were electrocuted were alive part of the time the electricity was surging through their bodies. One man was even alive when the current was shut off. The gas chamber was worse. One man who was gassed at San Quentin Prison suffered for many minutes as he was slowly choking to death. He kept banging his head against the steel pole behind him in hopes that he would die sooner.  Recently, a man was still alive when the lethal chemicals were injected into him. He was heard groaning while he was gasping for breath. He was taken off the gurney and placed in a cell where he then died of a heart attack.

These unfortunate executions where the prisoners in the US died so horribly were not done to make the prisoners suffer. To do so would be against the US Eighth Amendment which guarantees that no one will be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.  

Retribution on behalf of the victims

There is nothing that can bring more anguish to family members than having the knowledge that the person who killed a member of their family was never discovered. They will also suffer when they learn that the person who is accused of killing their loved one, gets off free as a result of a glitch in the legal system.  Revenge by any name is an ingrown characteristic of human beings. Just look at the faces of family members when they hear a jury find the murderer of their loved one guilty of first degree murder. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong in seeking retribution and enjoying every moment of it. It won’t bring the murdered victim back but it will to some degree, ease the pain of the loss.

Nazi war criminals who escaped from Europe after the war were hunted down and either executed or killed by those seeking revenge. To let them live out their lives in comfort simply chafed the sensibilities of the victims. 

We as human beings simply want to pay them back for what they have done to our loved ones or friends. What is wrong with that?

On April 19, 1995, Timothy 33-year-old McVeigh drove a truck loaded with explosives to the front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building just as its offices opened for the day. Before arriving, he stopped to light a two minute fuse. At 09:02, a large explosion destroyed the north half of the building. The explosion killed 168 people, including nineteen children in the day care center on the second floor, and injured 450 others.

He was executed on May 16,, 2001 by lethal injection at the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, the site of the federal death row for men and the federal execution chamber.

In the United States, family members and close friends of murdered victims can watch the executions of those who committed the murders of their loved ones. They are placed inside a small room in which they can witness the execution. The witness room next to the execution chamber that McVeigh was to be executed in was obviously too small so the government made arrangements for 10 people who would be chosen by lottery to attend the execution in person and that a closed-circuit telecast would be provided for about 325 survivors and relatives of the 168 men, women and children who died and had notified federal authorities that they wanted to watch the closed-circuit telecast of McVeigh’s execution at a federal prisoner transfer facility at Will Rogers World Airport. 

Now I admit that there may have been some who merely wanted to watch McVeigh’s execution out of curiosity as to how a person dies by lethal injection but I am convinced that the vast majority of them want to see that man die so that it could ease to some degree the pain they were suffering from the loss of loved ones.  That is called retribution. It is also called revenge.  But as I said earlier, that isn’t t necessarily morally wrong. It certainly isn’t evil if it is done in the name of justice.

Who is to judge, God or Man?

There are many people who believe that Man should not put fellow human beings to death. They will often refer to the Gospel of James in Chapter 4, verse 12 of the Christian New Testament which states in the International Standard Bible: “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge—the one who can save and destroy. So who are you to judge your neighbor?”  

We must not forget that that the New Testament was written by men who believed that the words they chose were the words of God. Of course, one has to believe that God actually exists to agree with that premise. All through history, many people didn’t share that belief and even today, many people don’t share that belief.

As I see it, Mankind has to look out for itself and that is why we make laws that judge others and their conduct.

My final thoughts on this issue

When I addressed the UN Congress in Caracas in 1980 in which one of the main topics was Capital Punishment, I said that in my opinion, the death penalty should be awarded to the following kinds of criminals. They are; terrorists who murder their victims, serial killers, mass murderers, people who torture others to death, persons who produce and participate in Snuff films and people who kill children. In my opinion, I can’t see why we should house and feed these killers.

Richard Benjamin Speck was an American mass murderer who systematically tortured, raped, and murdered eight student nurses from South Chicago Community Hospital on July 14, 1966. He was sentenced to death, but that sentence was later overturned due to issues with jury selection at his trial. He was sent to prison for life and died in prison of a heart attack at age 50. Instead of being executed, he spent the last 25 years of his life in prison.   

In May 1996, Chicago television news anchor Bill Kurtis received video tapes made at Statesville Prison in 1988 from an anonymous attorney. Showing them publicly for the first time before the Illinois state legislature, Kurtis pointed out the explicit scenes of sex, drug use, and money being passed around by prisoners, who seemingly had no fear of being caught. In the center was Speck, performing oral sex on another inmate, sharing a huge pile of cocaine with an inmate, parading in silk panties, sporting female-like breasts (allegedly grown using smuggled hormone treatments), and boasting, “If they only knew how much fun I was having, they'd turn me loose.” That’s what the taxpayers were paying for. He should have been given a second trial and after conviction, sentenced to death and executed.

Coral Watts was a serial killer who murdered 13 women, most of them in the Houston, Texas area, during the early 1980s.He was scheduled to be released in 2006. It was because an eyewitness to a murder he committed in 1974, his release was canceled and he died in prison in 2007.

John Miller of California killed an infant in 1957 and was convicted of murder in 1958. He was paroled sixteen years later and then killed his parents the year he was paroled and this time he was given a life term that same year.

Randy Greenawalt escaped from prison in 1978, while serving a life sentence for a 1974 murder. He then murdered a family of 4 people, shot gunning them to death, including a toddler. 

Kenneth McDuff was sentenced to death for murder however it was overturned when the Supreme Court placed a moratorium on capital punishment. Subsequently, he was released and later he killed as many as 19 young women.  Finally he was executed in 1998 for the murder of Melissa Ann Northrup. He once remarked "Killing a woman is like killing a chicken. They both squawk." 

Now you have some idea of why I still support the death penalty is cases such as these cases. However, not all murders are so horrendous as I have just mentioned but I believe that anyone who maliciously takes a human life should serve a great deal of time in prison unless of course, their crimes are so heinous, death is the only way to deal with them.  

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