Arguments for and Against the Death Penalty

By Henry Kyambalesa

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Henry Kyambalesa

1.   Introduction

This article is a direct response to the following introduction to an article that appeared in Lusaka Times dated May 29, 2022 under the rubric “UN Human Rights Calls on HH to come up with tangible legal reforms on death penalty:

“The United Nations (UN) Human Rights Office has joined in calls for the government to come up with tangible legal reforms following President Hakainde Hichilema’s pledge to abolish the death penalty.”

     The “death penalty” or “capital punishment” is a contentious issue worldwide. By definition, it is the lawful infliction of death by government authorities as a form of punishment for very serious crimes, such as murder, espionage, treason, economic sabotage, large-scale drug trafficking, aggravated robbery, and other serious felonies.

     Over the years, there have been calls and a sustained and resolute effort by opponents of capital punishment to rid the world of such punishment because it “represents an unacceptable denial of human dignity and integrity.”

     This article is an attempt at making a contribution to the topical issue of capital punishment. The remainder of the article is, therefore, devoted to a survey of the following themes: (a) murder versus other crimes; (b) the arguments for and against the death penalty; (c) guidance on the subject of capital punishment from several religious denominations; (d) the issue of prison escapes; and (e) a few observations regarding the death penalty. The article also provides a summing up at the end.

2.   Murder—A Peculiar Crime

In Zambia, Section 200 of the country’s Penal Code Act (Cap 87) defines what constitutes “murder” as follows: “Any person who of malice aforethought causes the death of another person by an unlawful act or omission is guilty of murder.”

     Section 201 of the Act prescribes the following sentence for any person who commits murder: “Any person convicted of murder shall be sentenced (a) to death; or (b) where there are extenuating [or mitigating] circumstances, to any sentence other than death: Provided that paragraph (b) of this subsection shall not apply to murder committed in the course of aggravated robbery with a firearm ….”

     In the same Section, an “extenuating circumstance” is defined as “any fact associated with the offence which would diminish morally the degree of the convicted person’s guilt.”

     Without slighting the seriousness of other capital crimes, murder is perhaps the most deserving of the death penalty. A person who willfully and/or intentionally takes the life of another person, therefore, commits the ultimate crime—a crime for which the death penalty is a fitting and well-deserved form of punishment.

     And by intentionally and/or willfully killing another person and, therefore, violating the victim’s right to life, the murderer dehumanizes himself or herself to the extent that he or she deserves to be expelled from the community of living humans.

     Moreover, people who commit murder in countries which have the death penalty in their penal codes most probably know the consequences associated with such a heinous crime. For such people, the punishment is, therefore, self-inflicted; after all, it is a punishment every societal member can choose to avoid in the first place!

     Haag (2005) has perhaps explained this point more succinctly in the following words:

“By committing the crime [of murder], the criminal volunteer[s] to assume the risk of receiving a legal punishment that he could have avoided by not committing the crime [in the first place].”

     Besides, it would be immoral for any government to collect tax revenue from law-abiding members of society, some of whom are kith and/or kin of murder victims, and commit it to the protection and upkeep of duly convicted murderers sentenced to life imprisonment with or without the possibility of parole.

     And is it not immoral for a government to protect the life of an individual who finds pleasure in committing murders—the ultimate disregard for other people’s lives?

     In all, murderers, in St. Thomas Aquinas’ contention (cited by Sharp, 1997), should not be given the benefit of the doubt: “We should err on the side of caution and not give murderers the opportunity to harm again.” As experience has taught us, wanton killers, more often than not, kill again; according to Sharp (1997), they may do so after escaping from prison, upon being released on parole, or if the authorities fail to capture them. They may also slay prison employees or other inmates.

     In the remainder of this article, therefore, the discussion regarding capital punishment is limited to cases involving “murder” because cases which do not involve the wanton taking of a person’s life should not attract such severe punishment. According to Kaluba (2005), capital punishment for murder is a straight-forward case and, as such, the debate over the issue is uncalled for.

     In his contention, individuals and organizations whose advocacy is for the abolition of capital punishment should be debating the abolition of the practice for crimes that do not involve the loss or taking of human life. Samba (2002) has a similar view: “Governments must discard [the] philosophy of human rights when it comes to one taking another person’s life at will.”

3.   Arguments for and against

This section is designed to provide a sketch of arguments both for and against the death sentence, particularly with respect to cases involving the commission of the capital crime of murder, which, in the words of Vellenga (2005:197), “should be exacted only after the guilt is established beyond the shadow of a doubt and only for wanton, willful, [and] premeditated murder.”

     Each of the arguments often advanced against the death penalty (by opponents) in favor of life imprisonment for murder is followed by a counter argument advanced by supporters (or proponents) of such punishment.

     Much of the content of the section is extracted and adapted from the literary works of St. Thomas Aquinas, Bailey (1987), Bedau (1997), Chanda (2005&2006), Chipango (2008), Dieter (2007), Gracyk (1997), Haag (2000&2005), Hahn (1985), Henry (1988), Charles Ryrie, Sharp (1997), Reverend G. Aiken Taylor, Vellenga (1992), Franklin E. Zimring, ProCon.org, Amnesty International, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

3.1   Effect on Heinous Crimes

There is no conclusive evidence that the death penalty as punishment for murder is a more effective deterrent to, or preventive measure against, murders than life imprisonment with or without the possibility of parole. Besides, the death penalty would not deter would-be terrorists; it would instead embolden them to carry out threats of attacks on individuals, communities, institutions, countries, or installations.

Proponents:

     According to Haag (2000&2005), “Execution of those who have committed heinous murders may deter only one murder per year. If it does, it seems quite warranted.” Prof. John McAdams, quoted by Chipango (2008), has somewhat echoed this point of view in the following words: “If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we will have killed a bunch of murderers.”

     The argument that the deterrent effect of capital punishment is not supported by real-life evidence is discredited in an online article by an anonymous author entitled “Evidence that the Death Penalty Deters,” in which the author has studied the history of the death penalty in the United States, analyzed other studies about the death penalty and deterrence, and has used a simple empirical approach to determine whether or not such punishment is a deterrent to murder.

     He has rendered the following conclusion: “[T]here is enough of a logical link between the death penalty and deterrence to call for an increased use of … [such punishment].”

     Clearly, the death penalty serves well as a more dreadful deterrent to murder than life imprisonment. It also serves well as an effective incapacitation of murderers, who, in the words of Sharp (1997), are very likely to kill or commit serious crimes again “in prison, after [escaping from prison], … [upon being released from prison on parole], and [if] … we fail to capture or incarcerate them.”

     With respect to incorrigible and hardened criminals who could be serving life sentences for murder and have little or nothing to lose, what would society do to dissuade them from killing again and/or committing other serious crimes?

     Examples of convicted murderers who have committed serious crimes abound. For instance, on August 4, 2004 in the United Kingdom at Wakefield Prison, Rickie Tregaskis, who was serving life imprisonment for the murder of a disabled man in Cornwall County in 1997, attacked another inmate, Roy Whiting, with a razor blade, causing a 6-inch scar on the victim’s right cheek.

     The following is another good example: in 2011, Matthew G. MacDonald, who was serving a life sentence in a Canadian maximum-security prison, attacked and killed Roch Theriault, a cellmate who, according to Grimminck (2014), was also serving a life sentence for murder.

     The case of Jeffrey Dahmer also provides a good example in this regard. Dahmer, who was serving 15 life sentences for his “gruesome exploits of murder, necrophilia and dismemberment” in Milwaukee city in the State of Wisconsin, was, according to Terry (1994), attacked and killed by Christopher J. Scarver, another inmate who was convicted in 1992 and sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering Steve Lohman by shooting him in the head at the Milwaukee office of the Wisconsin Conservation Corps where they both worked.

     Jesse Anderson, another inmate who was serving a life sentence for killing his wife, was critically injured during the rampage. (The judicial system in the State of Wisconsin does not have the death penalty in its penal code.)

     According to Terry (1994), Jeffrey Dahmer claimed to have met his 17 victims “at bus stops, bars, [shopping] malls, and adult bookstores [and] … lured them to his apartment” by promising them money and/or a drink of beer “in exchange for posing for nude photographs.” In the apartment, he drugged their drinks and then strangled, stabbed and dismembered them while they were unconscious.

     Capital punishment or the death penalty for murder is, therefore, still a deterrent to murder and other serious crimes even if there is no credible evidence about its effect on potential killers, because it incapacitates culprits and thereby prevents them from killing again and/or committing other capital crimes. Besides, life imprisonment cannot prevent culprits who are also drug dealers or members of gangs from orchestrating heinous crimes with colleagues who are not in prison.

3.2   Excessive Retribution

The death penalty can never be justified as fair punishment for any crime committed by any individual. According to Schroth (2008), “Retribution is just another word for revenge … [and] [t]o kill the person who has killed someone close to you is simply to continue the cycle of violence which ultimately destroys the avenger as well as the offender.”

Proponents:

     “Retribution” is not just another word for “revenge” or vengeance as Schroth (2008) has claimed because the death penalty for murder is imposed by a third party—a government—in line with the prescriptions of a country’s (or state’s) penal code rather than by the dead victim or relatives of the victim. The punishment could be said to be “revenge” or vengeance if it is imposed by the victim or by the victim’s relatives as individuals who, to use his line of argument, are likely to perpetuate “the cycle of violence which [can destroy] the avenger as well as the offender.”

     It is also not imposed against a culprit on behalf of any given victim or any of the victim’s relatives. A government that imposes and carries out the death penalty is, therefore, not the “avenger” but the authority that exists to ensure that law and order are embraced, appreciated and preserved.

     As Haag (2000&2005) has maintained, punishment is not intended to avenge, revenge, offset, or compensate for the victim’s suffering; rather, it is designed “to vindicate the law and the social order undermined by the crime” committed by any given perpetrator.

     Nevertheless, the old-fashioned idea or principle of “an eye for an eye” is still relevant for some cases in modern systems of jurisprudence. A judge adjudicating in a case involving a plaintiff who is seeking a repayment of an unpaid amount of money borrowed by a defendant, for example, cannot ordinarily order the defendant to repay the amount owing in the form of a keg of beer or a certain number of chickens instead of the money owed.

     According to Pataki (2004), the death penalty “is a part of a balanced and fair approach to criminal justice.” The following argument paraphrased from Chanda(2005&2006) is compatible with this point of view: Proponents of the death penalty are also concerned about the right to life, respect for the dignity of persons, and fairness in the pursuit of justice; the argument for capital punishment is in fact all about fairness.

     Besides, if someone intentionally deprives someone else of the right to life, it is, in Chanda’s(2005&2006) contention, only fair that he or she, too, should lose the right to life. In his view, all penalties for serious offences actually deprive culprits of their rights and/or freedoms, such as the freedom of movement and the right to bear arms.

     Moreover, the severity and finality of the death penalty, in Haag’s (2000&2005) contention, is commensurate with the seriousness and the finality of murder. In other words, the death penalty functions as a reasonable and generally acceptable form of retribution (or appropriate punishment) for murder.

3.3   Disparities in Application

According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the death penalty is handed out in a biased and racially disparate manner in the United States, where almost 50% of inmates who are on death row are African Americans despite the fact that such citizens make up only 13% of the country’s population.

     This point of view is echoed by Amnesty International (2004) in the following words: “The poor and members of minority groups suffer disproportionately from the death penalty. Evidence of racial discrimination has been revealed in South Africa and the USA.”

Proponents:

     In Sharp’s (1997) contention, murderers in the United States of America are put to death not based on the victim’s or culprit’s racial or economic status; rather, they are executed based upon death-penalty statutes enacted by States, the aggravated nature and specific circumstances of the crime, the nature of previous crimes committed by the culprit, and factors mandated by the country’s Supreme Court.

     And, according to Clegg (2001), the fact that Hispanics and African Americans are sentenced to death out of proportion to their numbers in the general population could simply be that they commit more capital crimes. In his view, no one would be surprised to find, for example, that there are normally more men than women on death row, and if poverty breeds crime and the poor are disproportionately minorities, then it must follow that minorities would be ‘over-represented’ among citizens who are on death row nationwide.

3.4   Irreversible Mistakes

The wrongful execution of an innocent man or woman cannot be reversed. There are many examples of innocent individuals who have been convicted of murder and executed, such as the following, which are cited by Bedau (1997):

In 1990, Jesse Tafero was executed in Florida. He was convicted in 1976 along with his wife, Sonia Jacobs, for allegedly killing a state trooper. In 1981, Jacobs’ death sentence was reduced on appeal to life imprisonment. 11 years later, her conviction was reversed by a Federal court.

     The evidence on which the two inmates were initially convicted and sentenced was identical; it consisted mainly of the perjured testimony on an ex-convict who became a witness against the two in order to avoid a death sentence.

In 1992, Roger K. Coleman was executed in Virginia for murder in spite of widely publicized doubts surrounding his guilt and evidence that implicated another person as the perpetrator—evidence that was not submitted at Coleman’s trial. Not until late in the appeal process did anyone take seriously the possibility that an innocent man was about to be executed. Efforts to delay or nullify the execution failed.

     There are several factors, identified by Bedau (1997), that explain why a judicial system may not prevent the conviction of innocent citizens; they include the following:

  • An overzealous prosecutor;
  • Perjured testimony;
  • Sloppy evidence-gathering work by the police;
  • Coerced confessions;
  • A defendant’s previous criminal record;
  • Inept defence counsel;
  • Reliance on seemingly credible evidence; and
  • Pressure for a conviction from a victim’s family and/or community.

     Unfortunately, the foregoing factors cannot all be purged from any criminal justice system. To guard against the possibility of convicting (even executing) innocent people, therefore, national governments which have the death penalty in their penal codes will do well to abolish such punishment and substitute it with life imprisonment with or without the possibility of parole.

     And since the reinstatement in 1976 of the modern death penalty in the United States, more than 87 people, according to Feingold (2000), have been freed from death row because they were later proven to be innocent, and “That is a demonstrated error rate of 1 person for every 7 persons executed.”

Proponents:

     Human endeavors, according to Chipango (2008), can never be completely foolproof, even with the use of advanced technologies. He has posed the following questions: Is the death of a patient on the operating table due to a doctor’s blunders or something else not done right a good reason for abolishing surgery? Should air travel be banned because passengers are likely to lose their lives in airplane (or aeroplane) crashes?

     And should the pharmaceutical industry be shut down because the wrong dosage or drugs, mistakenly taken or prescribed, are likely to kill a patient?

     Nonetheless, countries which provide for the death penalty in their criminal justice systems are, by and large, ensuring that the following pieces of evidence (cited by Sharp, 1997) are considered simultaneously in the prosecution of alleged perpetrators of murder:

  • Confessions by culprits;
  • Evidence provided by accomplices, if any;
  • Bloody clothing;
  • A murder weapon;
  • Entries in diaries and/or any other written documents;
  • Wiretaps;
  • DNA evidence; and
  • Fingerprints.

     Moreover, there are extensive protections designed to provide safeguards against wrongful conviction of defendants facing serious criminal charges in the majority of countries today. In the United States, for example, there are at least 28 of such protections, examples of which are as follows:

  • All defendants or suspects are presumed innocent until they are proven otherwise by a fair, impartial and independent court of law;
  • Each defendant is assigned two attorneys, and funds are provided to his or her defence counsel for investigations and trial;
  • The burden of proof is on the prosecuting authorities, who must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt;
  • A verdict must be unanimously reached by a 12-member jury; and
  • Imposition of the death sentence triggers an appeals process funded through the public treasury.

     Besides, Supreme Court statutes pertaining to the process for imposing the sentence of death, in Bedau’s (1997) words, “typically require a two-stage trial procedure, in which the jury first determines guilt or innocence and then chooses imprisonment or death in the light of aggravating … [and/or] mitigating circumstances.”

3.5   Cruel and Unreasonable

The execution of murderers is essentially an endorsement or legitimization of the wanton killing of human beings. Moreover, the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment that degrades and brutalizes the criminal through a tedious and tormenting execution process. Besides, the suffering endured by persons sentenced to death for murder exceeds that endured by their victims mainly due to lengthy and agonizing trials.

     Therefore, no crime can justify the imposition of capital punishment on any member of society, irrespective of the nature or seriousness of the charges against him or her.

Proponents:

     If we assume, as reasoned by opponents of capital punishment, that the execution of murderers is actually an endorsement or legitimization of the wanton killing of human beings, can we also conclude that the imprisonment of rapists, for example, is an endorsement or legitimization of the raping of women?

     Clearly, the “endorsement” argument does not make sense at all. And with respect to the argument that capital punishment degrades or brutalizes criminals, Gordon “Randy” Steidl, cited by Erb (2014), has a different point of view. He was initially on death row for allegedly killing Karen and Dyke Rhoads, but later joined the general prison population in Illinois (USA) after his sentence was commuted to life. Eventually, his sentence was overturned after it was determined that he was wrongfully convicted.

     According to Erb (2014), he had very strong feelings about prison life, saying, “If you really want to kill someone, give them life without parole. It’s worse than dying.”

     Nevertheless, punishment, regardless of its nature, is never designed to be pleasant! In fact, none of the methods of execution which have so far been used in countries which have ever imposed the death penalty on perpetrators of heinous crimes like murder can be said to be either instant or completely painless.

     Such methods include stoning, hanging, shooting, the gas chamber, electrocution, and lethal injection. Only lethal injection can perhaps be said to be not as brutal as the other methods of execution.

     With respect to the “suffering” that could have been borne or endured by either the victim or the perpetrator of murder, the victim, unlike the murderer, as Haag (2000&2005) has reasoned, “deserved none of the suffering inflicted.”

3.6   Cost Considerations

Various scholars, researchers and a diversity of universities and non-governmental organizations have, by and large, concluded that the costs associated with capital punishment are greater than those associated with life imprisonment. Amnesty International (2004), for example, has concluded that “the death penalty [is] … more [costly] … than alternative sentences [and] …diverts resources from genuine crime control measures.”

     In the words of Harris (2012), “[Death] … by execution is excessively expensive [and] … people [who are] knowledgeable about the subject will agree that the delay now built into the system, more trial preparation, much longer time to get to trial, much longer jury selections and trials, much more complicated and far more frequent appeals, and continuous motions, have increased the cost of capital punishment so that it is now many times the cost of keeping a prisoner in prison for life.”

     And, according to Death Penalty Focus (2016), “The death penalty is much more expensive than life without parole because the Constitution [in the U.S.] requires a long and complex judicial process for capital cases.”

     Incarceration for life for perpetrators of capital crimes like murder, therefore, should be the preferred form of punishment which governments need to seriously consider as a less-costly alternative to the death penalty.

Proponents:

     Judicial systems, like other government units and functions, are not designed to be profit centers. Besides, if the costs of capital punishment (relative to those of life imprisonment) are greater in developed countries, would abolitionists support such punishment in less-developed countries where the following factors are prevalent, which would make the provision for murderers’ safety, security and subsistence in prison for life relatively more costly?:

  • Less pre-trial time;
  • Not as many legal experts and attorneys are involved;
  • Only one trial is held to determine the culprit’s guilt and punishment; and
  • There are not as many appeals after the death sentence is sanctioned.

     Each of the foregoing factors is converted from some of the arguments against the death penalty tendered by Dieter (2007), who has claimed to have reviewed studies conducted by States and the Federal government in the U.S. over a period of 25 years relating to the costs associated with both death-penalty and life-imprisonment cases. The arguments were part of the testimony presented to the Judiciary Committee of the Colorado State House of Representatives.

4.   Guidance from Religions

In this section, let us briefly consider the teachings of the following sacred texts and religious denominations regarding the subject of capital punishment: the Holy Bible, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the Islamic Qur’an.

4.1   Guidance from the Bible

The commandment “Thou shall not kill” that appears in Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17 provides a fundamental Biblical basis against the death penalty. Besides, the alternative—life imprisonment—is a more civilized form of punishment for all serious crimes, including murder, because it opens up opportunities for repentance by, and the rehabilitation of, perpetrators of such crimes.

     And Jesus’ admonition “Let him without sin cast the first stone,” which He uttered to a group of Pharisees who were preparing to stone an adulterous woman to death, which appears in John 8:7, provides another good example of Biblical texts that are not in support of the death penalty.

Proponents:

     The arguments for capital punishment from a Biblical perspective are discussed in the ensuing paragraphs under several rubrics as follows:

  • The Old Testament, which, by and large, represent guidance on the subject from the Jewish religion referred to as Judaism, which does not recognize Jesus Christ as the son of God;
  • The New Testament, which, by and large, represent guidance on the subject from Christianity;
  • Repentance and rehabilitation; and
  • Divine law versus human values.

4.1.1   The Old Testament:

According to Sharp (1997), and Charles Ryrie, the commandment “Thou shall not kill” is a prohibition against the commission of murder by individuals. In Rev. G. Aiken Taylor’s words, “we tend to apply what the Holy Bible teaches us about how we—personally—should behave toward our neighbors with what it teaches us about how to … [maintain law and] order in society.”

     There seem to be no Biblical prohibition against any given government’s imposition of the death penalty in cases involving the deliberate taking of human life. Henry (1988) has perhaps tendered his view in this regard more starkly in the following words:

“Nowhere does the Bible repudiate [the death penalty] … for premeditated murder; not only is [such punishment] … permitted, but is approved and … [recommended], and for any government that attaches at least as much value to the life of an innocent victim as to a deliberate murderer, it is ethically imperative.”

     The following are good examples:

Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in His own image has God made man.”

Exodus 21:12: “Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death.” And

Leviticus 24:17: “If anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death.”

     I have paraphrased Hahn’s (1985) conclusion in this regard in the following words: God instituted the death penalty. He gave to governments the authority to use it to restrain murder and to punish murderers. Not to inflict such punishment is a flagrant disregard for God’s divine Law, which recognizes the dignity and sacredness of human life as a product of His creation. Whoever takes innocent human life, therefore, forfeits his right to live.

     Vellenga (1992) has rendered a similar conclusion in the following words:

“[Capital] … punishment must stand as the silent but powerful witness to the sacredness of God-given life. Life is sacred, and he who violates the sacredness of life through murder must pay the supreme penalty.”

     Let us now consider the following verse from Ezekiel 33:11: “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?”

     According to Sharp (1997), Bailey (1987) and Vellenga (1992), the words in Ezekiel 33:11 are addressed to the ‘house of Israel’ (specifically the Judean exiles of Babylonia) rather than to anyone on death row, in which case ‘the wicked’ are the exiles whose betrayal of the covenant led them into exile. And their ‘death’ was the unkindly political situation in which they found themselves, and their dwindling faith in the ancient concept of election.

4.1.2   The New Testament:

Capital punishment is also recognized as just punishment for cases involving the taking of the life of a human being in the New Testament. The following are good examples:

Acts 25:11: In his hearing before Festus, Apostle Paul stated, “If … I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die.”

And

Matthew 26:52: Jesus warned Peter, “Put your sword back in its place … for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” As Henry (1988) has argued, the ‘sword’ “was meant for execution, not for life imprisonment.”

     One of the arguments often advanced against the death penalty is Jesus’ admonition “Let him without sin cast the first stone,” which appears in John 8:7. But this, as Sister Helen Prejean has argued, “is an ‘entrapment’ story, which sought to show Jesus’ wisdom in besting His adversaries. It is not an ethical pronouncement about or against capital punishment.”

     This line of reasoning is echoed by Chanda (2005&2006), who has advised that Jesus’ action cited in John 8:7 should not be used “against [a sentence imposed through] a properly constituted court proceeding.”

4.1.3   Repentance and Rehabilitation:

In the ensuing paragraphs, let us consider issues relating to the possibility of repentance by, and rehabilitation of, culprits. As Vellenga (2005) has observed, the argument that the death penalty rules out the possibility of repentance for a crime committed is unrealistic.

     According to St. Thomas Aquinas, it is the person who is about to be executed who has, at that critical point of death, the rare “opportunity to be converted to God through repentance.” Gracyk (1997) has provided a good example in this regard concerning Dennis Gently (who was executed in April 1997 for the premeditated killing of Jimmy D. Ham), which I have paraphrased in the following words:

In his final statement, Gentry said, “I’d like to thank the Lord for the past 14 years on death row to grow as a man and mature enough to accept what’s happening here tonight. To my family, I’m happy. I’m going home to Jesus.” As the lethal drugs began to flow, he cried out, “Sweet Jesus, here I come. Take me home. I’m going that way to meet the Lord!”

     Unfortunately, murder victims, on the other hand, are not afforded the opportunity to prepare to meet their maker, because their lives are taken abruptly without any prior warning whatsoever.

     With respect to the argument that life imprisonment opens up opportunities for the reformation and/or rehabilitation of convicted murderers, it is perhaps worthwhile to take into account the following caveat by St. Thomas Aquinas: “[T]he danger [emanating] … from their [incorrigible] ways of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement.”

4.1.4   Divine Law v. Human Values:

There is a need for Christians who are against the death penalty to read the Holy Bible carefully. As Bailey (1987) has advised, they need to read it “as the word of God rather than seek to improve upon it by means of human values.” In Sharp’s (1997) words, “It is not uncommon for persons of faith to create a god in their own image, to give to that god their values, instead of accepting those values which are inherent to the deity.”

     Such people, as ancient rabbis (cited by Sharp, 1997) once warned, should guard against seeking to be more righteous than their creator. And they need to be mindful of the following warning, which is extracted and adapted from Revelation 22:18&19:

If anyone adds anything to the word of God, God will add to him the plagues described in the Bible; and if anyone distorts the word of God, God will take from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city.

     Besides, statements made by some religious groupings against the death penalty, as Sharp (1997) has noted, reflect positions which selectively discuss the mercy of God and His forgiveness, but deliberately avoid discussing the justice of God.

     Still, “the mercy of God and His forgiveness” is a weak argument against the death penalty. Firstly, the Biblical requirement to forgive those who may harm or hurt us is, according to Sharp (1997), a requirement for individuals, not governments. And, secondly, the murder victim is clearly not capable of forgiving the murderer.

     Also, the belief that Jesus abandoned the Law of the Old Testament and instituted a new ethic in the New Testament based entirely on mercy is erroneous, as Sharp (1997) has maintained, mainly because different forms of punishment are cited throughout the New Testament, including destruction, hell, unquenchable fire, and other forms of punishment and exclusion by God.

     In Matthew 5:17, for example, Jesus said the following: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” And in 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9, Paul, Silas and Timothy have rendered the following warning:

“[W]hen the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven …, He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord….”

     Incidentally, what would be the appropriate response by Christians who are opposed to capital punishment to the following observation by Pakaluk (1991)?: “If no crime deserves the death penalty, then it is hard to see why it was fitting that Christ be put to death for our sins and crucified among thieves.”

     Vellenga (2005:197) has made a similar comment in this regard in the following words: “It is significant that … Jesus [faced] … capital punishment … [in order for Him] to save the world. And when He gave redemption to the repentant thief, He did not save him from capital punishment but gave him Paradise instead….”

4.2   Guidance from Buddhism

Some Buddhist scholars, according to Wikipedia, interpret the following chapters of the sacred scriptures of the Dhammapada as injunctions against any legal measures that could lead to the imposition of the death penalty:

Chapter 10: “Everyone fears punishment; everyone fears death, just as you do. Therefore do not kill or cause to kill. Everyone fears punishment; everyone loves life, as you do. Therefore do not kill or cause to kill.”

And

Chapter 26: “Him I call a brahmin who has put aside weapons and renounced violence toward all creatures. He neither kills nor helps others to kill.”

     In mystical Zen Buddhism (as reflected in Japanese Bushido), for example, there is the following traditional expression: “The sword that justly kills is identical [to] … the sword that gives life.” There is also a Japanese Buddhist tradition known as issatsutasho, which can be interpreted to mean the following: “Killing one aggressor in order that many innocents may live.”

     In general, therefore, capital punishment is permissible in Buddhist traditions if it is used for preventative purposes.

4.3   Guidance from Hinduism

Among other things, Hinduism honors and embraces the concept of non-violence—that is, ahimsa or ahinsa. The civil, criminal and religious law of the Hindu religion is encoded in the Dharmaśāstras (which describe different kinds of offences and their punishments, and provide for the imposition of the death penalty in instances involving murder and righteous warfare) and the Arthasastra.

     In the Mahabharata, however, Hindu teachings argue against the use of the death penalty irrespective of the nature of offences committed by culprits.

     There are, therefore, arguments both for and against capital punishment in Hindu teachings.

4.4   Guidance from the Qur’an

The Qur’an professes the basic principle that everyone has the right to live, and, according to Wikipedia, honors the precept “Do not kill a Soul which Allah has made sacred except through the due process of [Sharia] law.”

     In Islam, the victim and/or the victim’s family are the judges for all offences committed against individuals, and the family of a murder victim can choose to pardon the murderer in exchange of a payment or condemn him or her to death.

     In general, transgressors are required to be killed for committing the crime of murder, and for spreading mischief in the land (or fasaad fi al-ardh)—which includes the following: (a) treason—helping an enemy of Muslims; (b) apostasy from Islam—leaving the faith and/or joining the enemy in fighting against the Muslim community; (c) land, sea or air piracy; (d) rape; (e) adultery; and (f) homosexual behavior.

5.   The Issue of Prison Escapes

Prison escapes of hardcore criminals are not uncommon—even in countries which can afford to provide highly secure prison facilities, such as the United States. There is also the potential for criminals to be released from prison by mistake. Examples of such incidences are provided in the ensuing paragraphs.

5.1  In Lincoln County in southeastern Arkansas in the United States, according to Lee (2017), Kenneth Williams escaped from prison shortly after getting sentenced to life for killing a college cheerleader in 1998. He broke into a farmhouse two miles from the prison, stole guns from the farmhouse, and shot the owner of the farm, Cecil Boren, who was tending his yard outside the farmhouse. Williams was rearrested later, sentenced to death, and executed on April 27, 2017.

5.2  On March 26, 2002, Clifton Blecha (a convicted murderer concurrently serving a life sentence and a 24-year prison term at Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon city, United States) was mistakenly paroled due to a paperwork mix-up. He was initially jailed in 1988 on a burglary conviction, and later convicted of murdering a fellow inmate in 1994.

5.3  In Nashville, Tennessee, two men, including a former prison guard, were arrested in a plot to break out a female death row inmate, Christa Gail Pike, and “there was a plan in the works and money changing hands.” She was sentenced to death in 1996 for the slaying of a fellow Knoxville Job Corps student. Colleen Slemmer, 18, was stabbed and beaten by Pike and Tadaryl Shipp, Pike’s boyfriend at the time, on the University of Tennessee’s agricultural campus in 1995.

5.4  In September 2014, T. J. Lane, a convicted Chardon High School shooter in Cleveland, Ohio, escaped from prison with two other inmates. He is serving a life sentence for the shooting deaths of Daniel Parmertor, 16, Russell King, Jr., 17, and Demetrius Hewlin, 17, at Chardon High School in February 2012. Nick Walczak, 17, was shot several times but survived the massacre.

     Lane’s courtroom appearance caused controversy as he wore a white T-shirt with “KILLER” scrawled across it; he also taunted the families of the victims with the middle finger.

5.5  In June 2015, Richard Matt and David Sweat escaped from the maximum-security section of the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. According to McKinley and Southall (2015), they used dummies made from sweatshirts to make it appear as if they were asleep in their beds, duping guards who checked on them every after two hours. They escaped by drilling through steel pipes and stone and steel walls that were two-feet thick.

     Earlier (in June 1986), Richard Matt, as reported by McKinley and Southall (2015), escaped from another prison, but was re-arrested and returned to prison, where he served time for having escaped from prison and for forgery.

     In 1993, he was sentenced to a 3-year prison term after an attempted robbery, and was released in 1996. In December 1997, he was re-arrested and charged with the murder of William Rickerson, who was beaten to death and dismembered, but before his trial, he fled to Mexico, where he fatally stabbed another American during an attempted robbery outside a bar. He was sentenced to 20 years for the crime.

     He was extradited to the U.S. in 2007 to face trial for Rickerson’s murder, and was convicted in 2008 and handed a sentence of 25 years to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole until 2032, which he was serving at the time of the escape.

     According to McKinley and Southall (2015), David Sweat, at the time of the escape, was serving life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a 2002 killing of Kevin Tarsia, a New York deputy sheriff, who he shot 22 times and then stole several items from his patrol car.

     According to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (as reported by Field, Ford and Yan, 2015), the two inmates had planned to kill the husband to Joyce Mitchell—a prison employee who allegedly aided their escape—and use her car en route to Mexico. But when she failed to show up after their escape, they instead headed toward Canada on foot.

     They were on the run for at least three weeks when Richard Matt was found and killed by the police. David Sweat was spotted a few days later near the Canadian border, where he was shot, injured and rearrested by the police.

5.6  On July 11, 2015, drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman escaped from a Mexican maximum security Altiplano prison through a 1.5 km (1 mile) tunnel which, according to Castillo and Corcoran (2015) of the Associated Press, was allegedly created without the detection of Mexican authorities.

     Authorities found a 50×50 cm (20×20 inch) wide and 10m (30ft) deep hole near the shower of his cell connecting to a tunnel that emerged at a half-built barn-like building in a farm.

     At the time of the escape, he was awaiting trial for drug trafficking and numerous drug-related murders, for which he would have been sentenced to life imprisonment mainly because Mexico does not have the death penalty in its penal code. He was also facing a multitude of Federal drug-related indictments in the United States.

     He was re-captured on January 8, 2016 after a gunfight between his bodyguards and Mexican Marine Special Forces in the Sinaloa city of Los Mochis on the Mexican Pacific coast. During the raid (according to Bonello, Sanchez and Wilkinson, 2016), five of his associates and/or bodyguards were killed, six were injured, several of them were captured, and one marine was wounded.

6.   A Few Observations

6.1  There is a need for government authorities to ensure that prisons are secure enough to guard against escapes of hardcore criminals, who can pose a danger to society in their quest to avoid being captured and taken back to jail.

6.2  Individuals and non-governmental organizations that are against the death penalty would be more helpful in contributing to the mitigation of the incidence of cases of murder by devoting their time and both material and financial resources to educating societal members about the need to guard against the deliberate taking of other people’s lives.

6.3  The application of capital punishment calls for a fundamental redress of any apparent inadequacies in a country’s criminal justice system so that the punishment, as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Blackmun (1995) and the American Bar Association (2000) have insisted, can be administered fairly, impartially, with reasonable consistency, in accordance with the due process of law, with minimum or no risk of executing innocent people, and upon an objective and exhaustive assessment of circumstances leading to the commission of murder.

     Unfortunately, such expectations cannot easily be met in poor countries, pseudo democracies, and totalitarian states worldwide. It would, therefore, be important for each and every government whose penal code provides for the death penalty to constitute an ad hoc panel of local legal experts to determine whether or not its criminal justice system meets the foregoing expectations.

     If the penal or criminal justice system is found to be wanting, law makers in the country would need to seriously consider the prospect of placing a moratorium on capital punishment, to commute the prison sentences of any individuals who are currently on the death row to life imprisonment with or without the possibility of parole, and to decide on modalities for periodic reviews of the moratorium.

6.4  Capital punishment should be reserved for cases involving the taking of another person’s life, and should be abolished for all other serious crimes, such as espionage, treason, economic sabotage, large-scale drug trafficking, aggravated robbery, and other felonies that do not involve the taking or loss of human life.

6.5  A decision on whether or not capital punishment should be abolished in any State or country needs to be made by residents or the citizenry through a referendum designed specifically for this purpose, and after exhaustive national debate on the issue, not by a Mayor, a Governor, a President, a Prime Minister, a group of law makers, or any other person or group of persons who wield the reins of power.

6.   A Summing Up

Thus far, we have explored the following themes: murder versus other crimes, the arguments for and against the death penalty, guidance on the subject of capital punishment from several religious denominations, the issue of prison escapes, and a few observations regarding the death penalty.

     The discussion throughout the article is limited to cases involving the crime of “murder” because cases which do not involve the wanton taking of a person’s life should not necessarily attract such severe punishment—such as espionage, treason, economic sabotage, large-scale drug trafficking, aggravated robbery, and other felonies that do not involve the taking or loss of human life.

     But be that as it may, there is a pressing need for legislative branches of governments worldwide to ensure that the following guidelines and pieces of evidence which are mainly gleaned from elsewhere in this article are considered simultaneously and incorporated into their countries’ penal codes or systems of justice, and are widely applied in the prosecution of alleged perpetrators of crimes and misdemeanors:

  • Presumption that all defendants are innocent until they are proven otherwise by a fair, impartial and independent court of law;
  • Provision for at least one defence attorney or defence counsel for each defendant, and the funds that may be needed by the attorney for investigations and/or trial;
  • The prosecuting authorities must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt;
  • Confessions by culprits;
  • Evidence provided by accomplices, if any;
  • Entries in diaries and/or any other written documents;
  • DNA evidence;
  • Fingerprints; and
  • Provision for a trial by a 12-member jury if the perpetrator is charged with a crime, the ultimate verdict must be unanimously reached by the 12-member jury, and the imposition of a sentence must trigger an appeals process funded through the public treasury.

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The author, Henry ‘Muyange’ Kyambalesa, is a retired Zambian academic currently residing in the City and County of Denver in Colorado, USA. He has pursued studies at the University of Zambia, Oklahoma City University, Colorado School of Mines, and the University of Denver, and has served as adjunct Assistant Dean and tenured lecturer in the School of Business at the Copperbelt University, and on the MBA Affiliate Faculty at Regis University in Denver, USA.