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 •  Printer friendly version Myths about the death penalty
Kimmo Suominen finds that abolition is the only standard by which capital punishment can be judged to be fair.
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Combat Law, Volume 2, Issue 2 -

Myth No. 1: Death Penalty results in reduced rates of homicides, murders and serious crimes in a society.

This is the most common myth which works in favour of imposition of death penalty. Typically, people believe that if there were possibility to be sentenced to death, the prospective offenders would think twice before committing a crime and could even totally give up their criminal intentions. This is what is believed to be the "deterrent effect" of the death penalty and many people believe that deterrent effect of death penalty is a very effective way to prevent murders and similar criminal behavior.

However, in reality, innumerable studies from all over the world have revealed totally different results. In fact, many studies even show the opposite effect, that existence of the death penalty as a punishment is brutalizing society and making it more violent. It is of course impossible to prove with absolute certainty for example how many murders have been prevented or how many people more have been killed because of the death penalty, and further, there are several factors according to criminologist researches, which can affect to criminal activity and criminal behavior and deterrent effect of punishment is only one of these factors. There are, however, several studies showing that there hasn't been any remarkable change, for example, in murder rates, after abolishing death penalty and also several studies go on to prove that threat of death penalty does not have preventive affect for people committing serious offences. What is remarkable is that some studies have even shown results that effect of the death penalty is just the opposite: existence of the death penalty is correlated with increased homicides!

After looking at the available statistics and selecting some very similar countries where factors relevant to causing or preventing criminality are quite similar, and then selecting from amongst those the countries with and without the death penalty, it is possible to make some careful conclusion as to how effective death penalty is in preventing serious offences. For example the western (post) industrial countries (USA, EU, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Monaco and Liechtenstein) have all abolished the death penalty, except USA, and still, for example, murder rates are much higher in USA than in any of these other, similar, countries.

Of course it is possible to make statements that if the death penalty would not exist even more murders would happen in USA, but it is difficult to find support for this statement from the studies. There has been no remarkable increase in murder rates in those US states which have abolished death penalty. In fact, the survey released in September 2000 by New York Times found that during the last 20 years, the homicide rate in states with death penalty has been 48 percent to 101 percent higher than in states without death penalty. Also, the FBI data show that 10 of the 12 states without capital punishment have homicide rates below the national average (source: Amnesty USA).

Also, for example, in Canada, after the abolition of the death penalty in 1976, Canada's homicide rate has declined. In 2000, there were 542 homicides in Canada - 16 fewer than in 1998, and 159 fewer than in 1975 (one year prior to the abolition of capital punishment). ( Source: Correctional Service Canada. derived from Logan R. Crime Statistics in Canada, 2000, Juristat, Vol. 21 No. 8, Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, 2001, p. 6; and Tremblay, S. Crime Statistics in Canada, 1998, Juristat, Vol. 19 No. 9, Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, 1999, p. 6.)

Some people also believe that the reason USA has such high crime rates is because of the reason that it is easier to get guns or firearms in the USA than in other western countries. That may, of course, be part of the reason, but it still doesn't explain everything: First of all, it is not a big problem to get a gun in Europe either, and secondly guns do not shoot the people themselves: you need a person to get a gun and to fire it.. Then, one may ask, what are the reasons that the deterrent effect is not working? This is mostly because people are not thinking about the consequences and punishment when they are committing serious crimes. Most of the homicides are committed under the influence of drugs or alcohol or in a state of mind, which lowers person's discretion and capability to think clearly, like rage, anger, fear or panic.

Some of the homicides are also committed by children or mentally ill persons who do not understand perfectly what they are doing. There are other types of serious offences, for example murder or homicide, which are done deliberately after carefully planning by clear thinking offender. However, even in these cases the deterrent effect does not work very effectively as either these offenders do not believe that they could get caught or they don't care about the sentence they will get if they get caught. Infact, sometimes if a person knows that the death penalty is waiting for him, nothing will hold him anymore and he could go on to commit more homicides!

Myth No. 2: Innocent people are not convicted in death penalty trials.

It is also often believed that proceedings in the death penalty trials are so meticulously carried out that there is not an iota of scope for error and in practice it is impossible to send an innocent man to death. However, there is no such a thing as 'foolproof' trial as long as human beings are working in the courtrooms, investigating the questions of guilty, testifying, calculating the evidences, or even passing judgments! There is always a possibility of making mistakes and those mistakes have happened several times even during the last few years! Convictions of the people because of wrong or faulty grounds are not fiction. For example, according to some studies, only in the USA, around 100 people been released from a death row because they have afterwards found innocent. It is also common that after getting more proofs, accused are found to be not guilty for the same crime for which they were convicted and it is possible that murder changes to manslaughter, and that one could invite death penalty while other does not. If an innocent person has been sentenced to prison, it is, at least in theory, possible to compensate the wrong judgment passed on that person by releasing him and compensating his lost with money. However, once a person is sentenced to death, then it is final, there is no chance to compensate him even theoretically!

Myth No. 3: It is cheaper to sentence a person to death than keep him a lifetime in prison.

First of all, it is impossible to fix any price on a human life. This by itself is sufficient to explode the third myth! But, even at the other, practical level, it is established that the actual cost of one death penalty case is usually much higher than the cost incurred on an individual serving life imprisonment. This is because of higher pre-trial costs and costs incurred during the court process. In the death penalty cases, states need to guarantee all the possible requirements of the fair trial, much more investigation, much more time, more defence lawyers to protect accused, more prosecutor and more bureaucracy. This means, both, higher investigative costs and higher extra costs during the trial. Also, many times death penalty is ultimately changed to life imprisonment and this means also extra costs after the more costly trial.

Of course, all this depends on the death penalty system of the country. If, in a country it is possible to award death penalty after "normal" trial, i.e., without extra investigations or other extra protections for the accused, the costs of investigations and trial go down, but a system which does not take care of the necessary requirements for the fair trial and procedural fairness especially in death penalty cases, is a system that has failed badly. Also, in any case, in such circumstances, the possibility of faulty sentences is bound to rise, which goes against the myth no. 2.

Myth No. 4: In death penalty cases, the probability of being sentenced to die is the same for everyone.

In theory, equality before the law is guaranteed in constitutions and in international conventions all over the world, which is great if it would work well. However, several studies have found that in death penalty cases, the likelihood to be convicted is much higher for the poor, less educated, ethnic minorities and religious minorities, as compared to the privileged individuals who have been accused of similar offences. Some studies have found that from 80 to 90 percent of the death row inmates are from minority groups and as many as 95 percent are classified as poor. Also, death penalty may be used for political reasons as well. Infact, there are so many possibilities of this kind that only when it is abolished from the law can a person be sure that the death penalty will not be used against him for the wrong reasons!

Combat Law, Volume 2, Issue 2
June-July 2003

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