The plight of Australian drug smugglers both in Singapore and Bali has sparked renewed debate on the death penalty. It is clear that our elected representatives overwhelmingly see the ultimate penalty as a cruel and barbarous sentence unacceptable in a humane society. They have said so in a history making petition which included almost all members of the Federal Parliament.
Notwithstanding this leadership, there are those who argue that at the very least capital punishment prevents the offender from offending again.
To support this view however is to turn our back on centuries of history through which the values of our liberal democracy evolved. The stage of that evolutionary process reached in the last quarter of the 20th century is what we know today as civilised society. The most fundamental reason for which civilised society rejects the death penalty is our belief in the sanctity of life. That belief is absolute. There can be no exceptions. Calls for revenge are emotional but a state must act with reason, not emotion. Once a state accedes to demands for the death penalty it risks teaching that life is cheap, not sanctified and that is a dangerous lesson.
There is a common belief reflected in talk back radio that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to crimes of violence. These arguments come from honest people who no doubt believe capture and punishment is a likely consequence if they were to commit a crime. Studies show however, that most criminals do not expect to be caught. Further, many crimes of violence occur without planning, that is, when the assailant is in a highly agitated and unthinking state.
It is not surprising therefore that there is an abundance of research revealing that there is no correlation between states with the death penalty and the incidence of capital crimes. Indeed statistics have shown quite the opposite. States in the US where the death penalty is available also have the highest homicide rates. Similar data exists in relation to high homicide rate countries in the developing world. Does it seem possible, if not likely that the lesson of the state taking a life has the effect of teaching that life is cheap?
Christians have been known to advocate capital punishment by enlisting the teachings of the bible, citing “an eye for an eye”. But those quoting this scripture ignore the condition placed upon that phrase “but vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord”. That’s right, it is divine retribution that the bible teaches. There is no succour there for those who would demean the sanctity of life. “God giveth and God taketh away”.
As a last resort, defenders of the ultimate penalty say, “Whether it deters others or not, it stops that person from doing it again”. True. But at what cost? What lesson has it taught? What of the suffering of the innocent that life leaves behind - mothers, fathers and children perhaps.
Crucial to the debate in the western world has been the horror of discovering that individuals have been executed in error. It was this aspect of the debate that prevailed in the United Kingdom in the mid 20th century. Britain, like the rest of the world but especially Western Europe, was reeling from the horrors of war and death and of course, the Holocaust. The United Nations had enacted the Declaration of Human Rights and the sanctity of life was prominent in people’s conscience. When a group of British lawyers, in the 1950’s published a compendium of 11 cases of victims, hanged in error, the public reaction was immense. Better a criminal go free than an innocent person hang, was the liberal cry.
This mood complemented a parallel movement among feminist groups who were outraged at the hanging in 1955 of Ruth Ellis whose crime of passion was not mitigated by overwhelming evidence of gross physical ill-treatment by the man she killed.
In 1965, a Private Members Bill attracting enormous public support, forced the Government of Harold Wilson to support the suspension of the death penalty in the Murder Act, and in 1969 the suspension was made permanent.
The arguments against the death penalty have stood the test of time ever since. Reason v emotion, the horror accompanying error, the absence of evidence of death as a deterrent and the responsibility of a state to denounce cruel and unusual punishments and to exalt the sanctity of life. These have persuaded most governments throughout the developed world, to abolish the death penalty and it is likely that is where the law in most civilised states, will remain.
Colin Lamont is a former MLA for South Brisbane and an early campaigner for tighter powers for police in domestic situations. Having spent a lifetime active in diverse areas of agenda setting and public policy he is currently completing his Ph.D. in Politics and Public Policy.