[DPIC] Similarly, many other researches were conducted but failed to offer any conclusive evidence as to the effectiveness of capital punishment in deterring crimes. The lack of consistency in these results presents a complex problem before us in evaluating the utilitarian value of death penalty.
One more aspect to be considered under the utilitarian thought is the cost of executions. It is well-known that the legal cost of executions in the United States is the greatest in the world and exceeds the cost for a lifetime imprisonment. However the 'cost of execution' ratio is not the same in other parts of the world and hence cannot be universally applied in evaluating capital punishments. Also the right to high quality legal representation is a major factor in deciding the outcome of the case. Poor people have no recourse to hiring expensive lawyers and are left in the lurch. This disparity that the socially disadvantaged have to put up with in the face of an impending death row throws serious questions about the accessibility of justice. The main function of the justice system is not only to punish the guilty but even more importantly, to make sure that the innocent are not victimized. Recent reports of capital punishment being awarded and executed in wrong cases shows an appalling miscarriage of justice. The problem with such cases of delayed exoneration is that it is irreversible.
Risk of error
Recent studies are revealing glaring mistakes in the justice process. The fact that more than a 115 persons who were on a death row were exonerated since 1973 indicates the margin of error. [DPIC] Professor James Liebman of the Columbian university conducted a comprehensive study of death penalty in the United States between 1973 and 1995. His study revealed that 82% of the cases received punishments less than death and 7% of the death row inmates were exonerated from their crimes. One of the closest ever cases is that of Anthony Porter. With only 2 days for his execution his case was stayed and was pursued by students of the Northwestern University. Fortunately for him the investigations revealed a flawed witness and subsequent action led to some other person admitting to the murder. Porter was freed after serving almost 16 years inside the prison with a death row.[DPIC] Voicing his concerns about the death penalty system in the Unties States, Judge Rakoff, who was in charge of the U.S. v. Quinones case wrote, "In brief, the Court found that the best available evidence indicates that, on the one hand, innocent people are sentenced to death with materially greater frequency than was previously supposed and that, on the other hand, convincing proof of their innocence often does not emerge until long after their convictions." [Jerry Gray] These facts present a clear picture of the risk factor and the complexity involved in capital punishment. However it is hoped that advancements in forensic science and in particular the DNA testing (before a trial), would drastically minimize errors in tracing down the actual culprit.
Deontological Perspective (retributive Justice)
Deontological theory is based on the concept of the rightfulness of an act in itself as opposed to the utilitarian thought of judging the act on its results. Emanuel Kant, the great philosopher favored the deontological viewpoint and viewed punishment as a "categorical imperative" and the "principle of equality." [Allen Stairs]. Accordingly, any act that is found to be morally deplorable is justified to be dealt with severely. Hence for the sake of upholding the moral status quo the deontological theory makes it imperative for the society to punish the offender. The underlying principle is that the offender by means of his antisocial action has morally deserved the punishment. Hence, whether or not the execution of a convicted criminal would lessen the possibility of crime in the society, it stands vindicated as a self-deserved punishment, and also as a rightful obligation of the society. This sense of retributive justice is at the heart of the deontological argument.
The problem with such an approach is that it assumes that human beings operate under total degree of freedom in all situations and hence hold the sole responsibility for the acts that they commit. This viewpoint, however, is far from the truth of the situation. Though there can be no real justification for commission of a murder (except under self-defense) the deontologist fails to appreciate the role played by the circumstances under which the act was committed. Invariably a murderer is overpowered by the circumstances when he commits the act. Further, the theory, by considering only the sense of free will under which a person operates, fails to perceive the influence of external factors like social inequality. The disproportionate ratio of the crimes committed by African-Americans who hail from a poor social background in comparison with the white population confirms this point. As philosopher Thomas. a. Mappes states, "Pure retributive thinking seems to presuppose a radical sense of human freedom and its correlate, a radical sense of personal responsibility and accountability for one's actions." [Laurence]
Moral justice principle views society as a cohesive unit operating under certain rules and regulations. Any member who violates the codes and harms the society will be considered to have affected the moral structure and hence suitable retribution awarded.
However, going by a purely spiritual viewpoint capital punishment cannot be approved. The essence of spirituality is to shower unconditional love to fellow human beings irrespective of their actions. The retaliatory principle of 'an eye for an eye" has no place in a spiritual society. Under such considerations there would be no place for capital punishment even if the criminal is in blatant violation of social norms. The spiritual community is based on redemption rather than retribution. However, from societies perspective such pure unconditional love is impractical if not impossible. Hence there can be no real justification for capital punishment viewed from a spiritual bent of mind. [Kenneth Cauthen]
In evaluating capital punishment we are faced with varied perspectives. Of all the different reasons for which capital punishment may be carried out the utilitarian aspect assumes more significance. Moral considerations set aside it would be permissible to have capital punishments if they result in a safer and much happier society. All other arguments that are used to justify death penalty (retributive justice) are unacceptable. However, as we have seen, there is little consistent proof and even contradictory evidence pertaining to the effectiveness of such a punishment in crime control. Further, thought must also be given to the fact that in the majority of the cases crimes are committed under mitigating circumstances. Given these pretexts, it might be forthright to assess alternative forms of punishment. Countries which have abolished death penalty in favor of alternative punishments have fared well not only in controlling crime rates but also in reducing recidivist crimes. Canada's example offers ample proof as to the effectiveness of a non-lenient judicial system and usefulness of long-term imprisonment in reducing crime rates. The falling recidivist ratio in that nation once again vindicates the success of their approach.
This does not mean that capital punishment should be abolished in its entirety especially under the prevailing tense situation of terror and violence where the perpetrator is in blatant violation of all ethical principles. We can justify capital punishment only from the utilitarian thought and that too under critical situations where the offender poses a serious threat to the safety of the society. (terrorists and serial killers). Such barbaric criminals who threaten to undermine the basis of our social stability cannot be permitted any leniency. Hence under these special and wartime circumstances it is preferable to award capital punishment. When the safety of the society would be in jeopardy if the offender is left alive, it would be justified to execute the criminal. The moral predicament under these situations is only superficial and we have strong utilitarian grounds to endorse death penalty under these situations.
1) Washington State University, "The Code of Hammurabi," Accessed on 3rd February 2005, http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~wldciv/world_civ_reader/world_civ_reader_1/hammurabi.html
2) University of Alaska, "The death Penalty in the U.S.," Accessed on February 3rd 2005, http://justice.uaa.alaska.edu/death/history.html
3) DPIC, "History of Death Penalty," Accessed on 3rd February 2005, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.php?did=199&scid=15
4) DPIC, "Executions in the United States from 1976 to 2005," Accessed on February 3rd 2005