A quick thought on the death penalty

Arguments abound on if, why, and when the death penalty is justified or not. In my opinion, though, most of these arguments are missing the most important point of the discussion. A point, I think, that we can all agree on: Innocent people should not be executed.

And yet, innocent people are being executed. Why? Because mistakes always happen. No matter how well-designed any country’s process of determining guilt is, the probability of wrongful convictions will always be non-zero. This means that if the death penalty exists as part of a justice system, it is inevitable that a non-zero number of people will get sentenced to death despite being innocent.

Since no system of justice can guarantee that it will never wrongfully convict anyone, having the death penalty as part of a justice system is essentially the same as saying: “We are okay with the fact that this will lead to the death of innocent people.”

Therefore, there are no circumstances that justify the death penalty in my opinion. Not because there are no people who may deserve the death penalty, but because of the inevitable price society must pay for having it.

59 thoughts on “A quick thought on the death penalty

  1. This is an interesting point of view that you talk about, and one where there is no right or wrong answer. I do see your point about death penalties killing innocent people and I think it is a valid point for sure! I guess that it is hard to find a solution which is 100% flawless in lots of cases, and the death penalty is one such example. Thanks for sharing this, was interesting and make me think!

    Feel free to read some of my blogs 🙂

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  2. Very interesting and tough topic here! I also agree with you 100% but not exactly for the same reasons, even though what you say is extremely right, and probably the best argument for this debate! I just think that no one deserves it. And I’m not saying that everyone is nice or that people can change or anything like that. I just feel like no one is “high” enough to sentence someone else to death. Even those who have killed do not deserve to be treated the same. Though I know not everyone agrees with this view ahah, it’s just my personal feeling! 😊

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    1. Yes, that and the question of whether or not anyone has the right to pass this kind of judgment is also super relevant. There are a lot of different opinions on these questions, though – something that is much less the case for killing innocent people. Thanks to this, I think the argument can turn an otherwise convoluted and complex discussion into a simple assertion: We don’t want to kill innocent people, ergo the death penalty has to go. Nothing else to talk about.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Love this. Short and concise. Agree with you, it just feels like it would defeat the purpose of a justice system. Not to mention a lot of crimes are related to social and cultural issues that needs to be addressed as well. The solution is surely not as simple as eliminating an individual.

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  4. I hold the same stand against death penalty.

    As long as the justice system is still as bent as ours (in the Philippines), I would not be able to agree to this process. Not only that they still convict innocents till date, but I also question the motives behind how hard they fight for death penalty to be reinstated.

    I remember that one infamous case of death penalty in the Philippines, it was the execution of Leo Echegaray. While I am almost certain that he did really rape his daughter and deserved to be punished, I still think about the reason behind the punishment of their choice. Why the death penalty when everyone gets reclusion perpetua? At that time, I believe it was politically convenient to do so because they needed that kind of press attention and people’s approval. It was hypersensationalised to think it was before year 2000, pre-social media.

    I have wondered about their motivations. Was that to really seek justice? Or was that for political gain? To date, a former Barangay Captain still juices his bounty from this particular execution. He has since held high level positions “by appointment” and his only claim to fame was being that Barangay Captain who conveniently sheltered the victim from being shown on tv and to avoid being overphotographed and for that matter, he selflessly volunteered to be her spokesperson.

    In a criminally infested land such as ours…where the poor gets execution and the drug lords are being handled with extra care. I will never be able to acquiesce to this process.

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    1. Thank you for sharing this perspective, I hadn’t heard about this case before. And yes, the problem of using the death penalty as a political tool is just another one to add to the pile of issues. The point I made was mainly focused on the inevitable mistakes that will happen even if everyone acted in good faith. It gets even worse when you consider the possibilities for abuse.

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  5. Death penalty is a hot topic – the last thing we want is to put someone who was wrongly convicted on death penalty. If it was absolutely proven, it’s still an issue where an eye for an eye comes into question. It’s too much power to give to the people who administer the death dosage as well.

    Nancy ✨ mdrnminimalists.com

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  6. Ah Markus, this is an interesting debate. I am going to put a spin on it for you. Not because I necessarily disagree with you, but, rather, because you are a very smart chap and it is food for thought. Vaccines are not fail proof. There is a small [c. 1%] risk of something going wrong with a child when he/she is vaccinated. This is the failure point that anti-vaccers quote and live by. However, vaccines have saved millions of lives world-wide. Children who are vaccinated no longer die from tetanus and diphtheria, go blind from measles, have malformed babies due to contracting German measles during pregnancy, die from TB or suffer whooping cough. From an ethical and moral point of view, the small failure rate is tolerated due to the overwhelming benefits of vaccines to society as a whole. Now if we apply this to your argument above, do the small number of people who are incorrectly convicted mean that the benefits of the entire system should be discarded? PS, I don’t believe in the death sentence but I’m just poking the bear to see what you think. Have a happy Friday.

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    1. Thank you, I appreciate your comment a lot! I love “devil’s advocate” types of debates, and this is an interesting way to think about it.

      What I would retort is that abolishing the death penalty is not the same thing as unleashing dangerous criminals on society without any constraints. It just means no longer executing anyone. Because of this, I don’t think that removing the death penalty removes the benefits of the system – it just removes its downsides.

      The possible ways to do this are a different debate, which would probably hinge around what a society wants to achieve – such as retribution, rehabilitation, etc. It also depends on a society’s approach to guilt. As a bold argument (just to consider an extreme idea), one could suppose that anyone’s actions are merely the product of their genes and experiences, which would undermine the notion of “punishment” entirely. After all, how can one be punished for something that one had no control over?

      Crucially though, even this extreme idea would not undermine the fact that some individuals may need to be separated from society to retain the benefits of the system, as you say. So this would be my anwer: Definitely separate this small number of individuals from society (again, the “how” is a different question), just no longer execute them.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, I like your answer Markus and I am of a similar mind. There are many criminals who are rehabilitated in prison. I don’t think all people who turn to crime do it because of their circumstances or life experiences or even genes. Some perfectly lovely couples have a child that turns out to be a serial killer. That is rare though and may be those examples of real psychopaths who are born without the ability to love or express remorse. I remember reading a book when my boys were very young by a Christian psychologist. He said that children, especially boys, who are grossly neglected as babies and toddlers, undergo a chemical change in their brains which destroys certain of their empathetic traits and the ability to love. To quote he said that “their neglect burned new pathways in the male brain.” I have never researched this further but it is an interesting idea to be sure.

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          1. Yes, although I’ve always found that argument to be a bit dodgy since the death penalty isn’t exactly cheaper. The thing is, either you have all these checks and balances, rights to be exerted etc., which costs a lot but at least minimizes the rate of wrongful convictions – or you get rid of all that because it is so expensive, but then the rate of wrongful convictions will go up and the problem becomes even bigger. So, the more a justice system tries to make sure that the death penalty is only ever applied to people who are not wrongfully convicted, the more expensive it becomes – more expensive than a life sentence.

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        1. It is fascinating what we keep learning about who we are as human beings, no? And I’m sure that there are extreme cases that cannot be rehabilitated. I am completely in favour of separating such individuals from society, although personally I would argue this needs to happen not to punish the irredeemable individuals, but to protect society.

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  7. This really makes you think because I’ve heard lots of opinions from both sides on this topic. It’s hard to think someone should be put to death because what if they find out after they are dead that they were innocent all along. What a horrible thing to happen to an innocent person.

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  8. If there is no death penalty what is the alternative? A sentence that allows the perpetrator back into society without any cost or a sentence that means ‘life’ but with a TV, books, a phone, education even physical relationships and all medical care? And at what cost to you and to me?

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    1. I see what you mean, and thank you for commenting! It is important to really look at this issue closely. This is also what brought me to make my argument in the post.

      The thing is, even in terms of economic cost, the death penalty is usually more expensive than even a publicly-funded life sentence. Because the death penalty is by definition an irreversible sentence, it is only right that a justice system goes to great lengths to make sure that anyone who gets sentenced is actually guilty – which is massively expensive.

      Because of this, there have been arguments that sentencing severe perpetrators of the law to death really shouldn’t be that hard. But the problem is: Making it easier for rapists and murderers to get sentenced to death means removing some checks and balances from the process, which also makes it easier for people who are innocently accused of seriously perpetrating the law to get sentenced.

      It is incredibly expensive to determine guilt, and even with infinite resources, convictions would never be 100% certain across an entire legal system. The consequence is that even just financially, the death penalty makes less sense than the alternatives.

      At the end of the day, mistakes are always inevitable – inevitably leading to innocent people getting executed, as long as the death penalty exists. This is also why I think it is important to frame the question about the death penalty in the right way. The right question is not: “Do you think there are situations when the death penalty is justified?”, but: “Do you think it is OK to kill innocent people in exchange for having the death penalty?” To me, the answer to this second question is a resounding “no”, which makes all other considerations obsolete.

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      1. You put your arguments well and I would be happier with no death penalty IF ‘life sentences’ meant never getting out. If you or I KNOW that by taking a life we would lose ours it might make a difference. If ‘life imprisonment’ meant hardship, it might make a difference!
        Just recently in the UK the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ died in prison! He had murdered 13 women and had the whole country on tenterhooks, in particular women, before being caught. In prison, he had every comfort from TV to mobile phone and even celebrity status! The cost to the country was astronomical. The trauma of his deeds remains with the population but in particular with the families of the victims.

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        1. Yes, there is another important discussion to be had on how the justice system should work outside of the death penalty. You give a good example, because extreme cases such as this one are always hard to relate to other crimes, which can often be more relatable or mundane.

          One challenge is to figure out which approaches work to achieve the desired outcomes. Murder is particularly difficult, as harsher punishments do not seem to work as deterence – especially in extreme cases. So the first question is: What are the desired outcomes of the justice system? Followed by: How can we achieve them? Every society really has to come up with its own answers to these questions. Personally, I would bet on prevention rather than retribution as much as possible, and focus resources on victims rather than prepretrators for crimes that have been committed.

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  9. I would prefer systems that focus on rehabilitation, and societies focused on preventing the need for crime, most of all.

    There are several euro countries with obscenely high income tax but it’s spent properly, creating high levels of life satisfaction and low crime. I remember seeing one country’s prison… the inmates leave every day for their regular job and come back at night, on their own, to serve their time. Also, obviously, a gun free country.

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    1. What gets me is that there is plenty of evidence to support that this type of justice system works. Especially prevention does a lot to not only reduce crime but also generate wealth for society. Ironically, thanks to that large income tax that finances it all. But there is more to it than just the tax itself, of course. Such as political culture, levels of transparency and checks and balances, as well as the desire of society to support a different approach, to name just a few.

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      1. I thought of you when I saw headline yesterday about a man who’d been on death row for 14yrs being freed because he was wrongly convicted.

        An add’l problem here is that a lot of jails were privatized so there’s now BIG money to be made by incarcerating people.

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          1. Yes. Horrifically so. I think the US is too dug into the punishment system to ever get out of it.

            One of the propositions on Cali ballot was to change bail system from flat amounts to sliding scale based on ability to pay. It failed.

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              1. I think capitalism and people’s resentment of taxes (and how they’re used) will prevent any positive change here.

                Surprisingly, in the recent election Calif voted to restore voting privileges to felons. But I think it’s only after release.

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  10. The death penalty is archaic. While there are crimes that are heinous, the truth is as you said, there will always be innocent lives lost. We are not God and thus cannot say we know that a person is guilty. Even when in court, we look for something to be “beyond a reasonable doubt.” What is the circumstances weren’t reasonable?

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    1. Exactly. It can makes sense to have “beyond a reasonable doubt” in law, as it allows a judge to take situational factors into account. But this degree of arbitrariness inevitably leads to errors, which is not justifiable with the death penalty.

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  11. I totally agree, and there is always this little voice in my head saying to me “who are you to decide if somebody should live or die?”. I understand that somebody might have done horrible things, but is it really my place to take their life?

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  12. Yes, I have similar views Markus. I am flat dead against it. Even for war criminals.

    A number of years ago, I had a wonderful consultant undertaking a project for me (and my local government). His father was the last man to be executed in Australia before the death penalty was abolished. He was a notorious serial killer.

    A very thought provoking post 🤔

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Sean! Out of curiousity, did your consultant express any views about the death penalty as well?

      What really makes this hard to think about is that we tend to gravitate towards these specific cases – such as in the example you mention – and then decide on the entire issue based on those. Could it be argued that notorious serial killers should be subjected to the death penalty? Yes, it could. But this ignores the wider implications of having the death penalty in the first place, as I have tried to argue here.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. No, he publicly stated that he had to live with who his father was and get on with his life. He certainly did that. He was a very prominent Aussie and well loved by many – a true humanitarian, actually. Just the loveliest person.

        Yes, with the wider implications, the fathers of sociology commented on this very fact when explaining how society demands “justice” at essentially any cost – so it can live with itself. I have always had a problem with those who demand an expedient outcome whilst ignoring what it means to be human.

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        1. It is always amazing to see how people can overcome so many different kinds of adversity in so many different ways.

          Yes. I suppose there is always a certain amount of deflection at work. As well as a desire for revenge. Which are just more reasons why the death penalty seems not worth the price.

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