Should death sentence be abolished?

Whenever there is a court verdict awarding a culprit death sentence the human rights lobby, and even some legal experts, start demanding that death sentence be abolished. I remember there was a candlelight vigil when Dhananjoy Chatterjee was awarded death sentence. People object when terrorists are hanged. Even after the Nirbhaya verdict some lawyers and human rights activists have been demanding that the ghoulish culprits shouldn’t be hanged. In the garb of protecting the minor, the most macabre of them is out of jail and is being “rehabilitated”.

See for example this TV debate in which Nirbhaya’s mother lashes out at people who are opposing death sentence for Nirbhaya’s murderers:

I have copied the URL of the video from the point when the mother starts talking because before that it’s the usual stuff.

Primarily there are two reasons why people think death sentence should be abolished:

1. Death sentence is not a deterrence — it hasn’t been proven that death sentence stops people from committing murder and other heinous crimes. No one commits a crime thinking that he or she would be caught.

2. Death sentence is barbaric and is nothing more than state-sanctioned murder.

Why is death sentence awarded? Is it to instill a sense of fear among prospective criminals? Is it to deliver justice to the victim or/and his or her family? Is it to punish the perpetrator?

In the olden days death sentences used to be very brutal. There was a time when public executions were a norm. Death by stoning, decapitation, mauling by lions and elephants, blowing by cannon, burning at the stakes, nailing to the cross, it was a common practice of punishment.

If you have read The Count of Monte Cristo you will remember that people used to go watch a public execution even as a pastime and then later on their way back, would talk about their experience like we talk about a movie after watching it.

Gradually, at least in the civilized world, people started finding such types of public executions barbaric. These days you see instances of such executions mostly in Islamic extremist videos or TV series like The Game Of Thrones. Barring a few Islamic countries, legally sanctioned public executions don’t take place.

Is death sentence a state-sanctioned murder? Of course it is. Whenever you kill someone it is a murder, whether you hang someone after awarding a death sentence, kill someone while committing a crime, kill in a police encounter, or kill terrorists or soldiers from another country. The circumstances decide whether the murder attracts reward or punishment.

Those who are in favour of abolishing death sentence in the modern world, say that death sentence doesn’t solve any purpose. Crimes still happen. Immediately after the Nirbhaya verdict, there has been a brutal gang rape and murder, some say even ghastlier than Nirbhaya’s murder, in Rohtak, Haryana. The Nirbhaya verdict didn’t act as a deterrent.

Since most of the death sentences are awarded for the rarest of the rare cases, they are not frequent enough to make an imprint on the minds of prospective murderers and rapists. News of crimes are more, news of punishments are few. Maybe if the sentences were more frequent, they would have an impact on people. Maybe.

Again, when people commit a crime, getting caught is the last thing in their minds. When they are committing a crime, to their best abilities, they try to make sure that they’re not going to be caught. They know that there is very little chance that they are going to be caught.

People commit heinous crimes with the following attitudes:

1. They are too smart to get caught.

2. Even if they are caught, using influence on community support, they will be released.

3. They think law and order isn’t very effective.

4. They think the victim it is so insignificant that the police is not going to pay any attention to his or her murder or violation.

Here I’m not talking about crimes of passion or crimes where some sort of religious, cultish motivation is involved, because in such crimes, people don’t pay much attention to the consequences, and no matter how severe the punishment is, they’re going to carry out their acts.

So, death sentences, especially intermittent death sentences, definitely don’t act as deterrents. A capable, swift and impartial justice system would be a better deterrent. When people know that they are definitely going to be caught and when caught, the justice will be swift and unavoidable, they will be less inclined to carry out their heinous acts.

What if the justice system goes through a complete overhaul and almost every criminal begins to get caught?

Many believe that it isn’t the criminal we should go after, but the tendency to commit the crime. Every criminal must get a chance to reform, and when we award the death sentence, that chance to reform a person is lost for ever.

People who make such arguments keep the victim and the victim’s family completely out of the picture.

A heinous crime is committed, a person dies a terrible death that he or she no way deserves, and then the perpetrator should be given a chance to reform. After reforming, the former criminal can live his life till he or she dies his or her natural death.

In terms of humanity, yes, we may have achieved the pinnacle of civilization by supposedly eliminating the criminal tendency and not the individual.

But how do you explain this to the victim and the family of the victim? Do they have no stake in this whole affair? Don’t they have the biggest stake? Since they have borne the severest brunt of the perpetrator’s “criminal tendency” shouldn’t they have the last say? Shouldn’t their need for a closure be kept in mind while awarding the final sentence?

In this regard, a death sentence primarily acts as a revenge tool for the victim, for the victim’s family, and for the society in general. It democratizes the ability to kill or mutilate.

A death sentence gives a closure to the victim’s family (because in most of the death sentences, the perpetrator does not survive). Even if the perpetrator doesn’t meet the same barbaric end the family member was subjected to (physical mutilation, rape, etc.) at least he or she is no longer alive.

It’s a consolation for the family that the perpetrator has paid the ultimate price. They derive some sort of peace and they feel that their family member has been avenged and hence, his or her soul must be at peace too. Getting even with the perpetrator gives them a purpose of life after the massive loss. With the perpetrator gone from the world, they can move on.

Remember that when these families are pursuing the perpetrators, whatever are their public statements, they are pursuing a personal goal. A larger sense of purpose might be setting an example for other prospective criminals, but in most of the cases, the families are seeking personal revenge. The one who is dead, is dead. He or she cannot be brought back. The pain he or she was subjected to cannot be undone. Nitish Katara’s mother seeking death sentence for his murderers isn’t going to bring back Nitish, but she still needs a personal closure.

This is a civilian way of outsourcing your revenge. When there was no law, those who were capable of it, would take revenge on their own. If one of their family members were murdered, they would chase the murderer and kill him or her, if they had the physical strength or the needed number of people to help them. Justice system was formed when not many people were capable of carrying out revenge or redressal.

A justice system also stops the society from going on a revenge spree. If people start thinking that they’re not going to get justice they won’t go to the courts. They would rather hire agencies that would carry out justice for them.

Death sentence for heinous crimes also reassures the society in general no matter how much it perturbs human rights activists. Society too needs a closure no matter how detached it seems. Given a choice, the society would want Nirbhaya’s killers hanged. Some would even prefer some sort of mutilation or some infliction of pain before hanging them, just the sort of pain that they inflicted on Nirbhaya.

But mostly, the death sentence is for the victim and for the victim’s family.

If death sentence is abolished it will encourage the families of the victims to take law into their own hands and seek justice in whatever manner they deem fit.