A Matter of Life or Death

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I have been inundated with a flood of news articles, tweets, opinion pieces, and Facebook posts about capital punishment and the loudest, most bellowing of opinions are voiced by those who oppose it. I’m part of the minority when I say I would not oppose the death penalty returning to Australian shores. But it should only be used for the most heinous of crimes, and it should be used sparingly.

My problem with the copious amount of voices opposing the death penalty is that they are all very loud, but they lack substance. Their reasons are weak and I’m yet to hear a strong argument supporting the abolition of capital punishment.

Five arguments that I most commonly hear:

  1. You’re killing someone to prove killing is wrong
  2. You’re no better than the murderer
  3. Who gives us the right to play God?
  4. Killing someone is cruel & inhumane / Killing is wrong
  5. What if they’re innocent?

1. You’re killing someone to prove killing is wrong.

Punishment isn’t one-size-fits-all and this makes the purpose of prison unclear. Is it for rehabilitation? Is to deter others in society from committing crime? Is it to protect the community from violent and dangerous people? Is it simply to spend time to think about what they’ve done?

It could be all, some, or none of the above. Someone serving 6 months for drunkenly assaulting a fellow rug cutter in a nightclub is presumably in prison for a different purpose than someone serving consecutive life sentences for raping and murdering a dozen people.

Capital punishment is not necessarily to prove that killing is wrong. Rational, sane, intelligent people know killing is wrong. Killing has been wrong for centuries but it has never stopped. Why would I be naïve enough to think the restoration of the death penalty will teach society something they already know? It has been well supported that the death penalty has rarely been successful as a deterrent, even when people are tortured in very public places for the rest of the community to watch.

Do you want this guy back out on the street?

Do you want this guy back out on the street?

In my opinion, capital punishment is to remove an unfixable, and very serious, problem from the community to protect the rest of society, and let’s face it, to free up a cell. Take Ivan Milat for example. He killed 7 people. He was sentenced to 7 life sentences in prison, and has so far served 18 years in prison. So, is the community protected? Not necessarily. He’s attempted numerous escapes, which involved swallowing razor blades and cutting off a finger. Being transported to hospital marginally increases his chance to escape. He’s doing everything in his power to escape from prison and rejoin our society.

Now imagine for a second that he successfully escapes… Ted Bundy escaped and killed three people.

2. You’re no better than the murderer

This reason barely deserves ink but in a nutshell, let’s compare Ivan Milat again, with the hypothetical person who administers the lethal injection or flicks the switch. You seriously want to claim that those two people are as bad as each other? Really?

Abolitionists might as well compare a Veterinarian who’s doing a noble and community-friendly service such as putting down old, sick dogs to a sadistic freak that kills puppies. Slowly. With an axe.

How could you think such things?

How could you think such things?

3. Who gives us the right to play God?

We allow our law enforcers to kill… sometimes...

We allow our law enforcers to kill… sometimes…

The same people who don’t want humans replicating God seem satisfied when humans play Law Enforcer and sentence someone to a life in prison, or hell as most people might imagine it to be. Do these same people have a problem when a police officer fatally shoots someone in the course of duty? I understand there’s a difference. Executing an inmate is not a split second decision with the purpose of immediately protecting a civilian or fellow officer who might be in harms way.

We seem to vehemently oppose killing an inmate who has already committed a heinous act, and who was deemed too dangerous to rejoin society. But we support police officers, by providing legal backing, to fatally shoot a person if they reasonably suspect that person will do something harmful, even if they haven’t yet committed a serious crime.

The other facet of this is that violent prisoners might be locked away from society, but that doesn’t mean they can’t hurt anyone. If you oppose a violent prisoner from being executed, then logically you should oppose other prisoners from being unfairly exposed to that violent prisoner. Prison deaths, stabbings, and beatings aren’t exactly rare.

Society has allowed us over the course of centuries to play God when we see fit. Either we as a human race have the right to punish those who have done wrong, or we don’t.

4. Killing someone is cruel and inhumane / Killing is wrong

Simply stating, “killing is wrong”, then putting your hand up and ending the conversation isn’t good enough.

Is this any less cruel than execution?

Is this any less cruel, inhumane or degrading than execution?

This issue shouldn’t only focus on whether killing is cruel or inhumane, but equally analyse whether the suggested alternatives are any less cruel or inhumane. Death row inmates regularly request their execution to be expedited, and have often indicated they preferred execution to life without parole because that would have been much worse. Sentencing someone to life, potentially 50+ years in a box is inhumane, cruel and degrading. I can’t begin to fathom what that would be like. Friends and family would eventually disappear. The prisoner’s mental capacity would surely start to diminish.

Spending day after day after day staring at cold, blank walls, pacing in small barred and caged areas, watching your back from other inmates, doing acts you’d rather not just for a cigarette. Ok, some of that was my idea of prison from documentaries but you get the idea. If you try and tell me that prison isn’t that bad i.e. they have access to a library of books, a TV, rare Internet access, then why? Why are we making prison comfortable? What exactly is the purpose here?

We slowly remove a prisoner’s liberty, any semblance of control they may have had and the ability to make choices. We remove their relationships. We slowly encourage them to lose feeling. We slowly chip away at their life, piece-by-piece until there’s nothing left. Until they turn into a shell of the person they once were, where they can spend the next few decades as a shell of a human with nothing to live for but passing time. How is this not cruel, inhumane or degrading?

I understand that lethal injection/hanging/electrocution has not always worked successfully. Multiple cases exist where inmates choked, gagged or gurgled for 10-20 minutes before finally being pronounced dead. I don’t condone torture and every effort should be made to ensure the execution is quick and pain-free. As I publish this, news breaks of the case of Clayton Lockett’s botched execution earlier this week. He was given a new cocktail of drugs and clearly it didn’t work. 14 minutes into the execution, he starts to gurgle, convulse, and after a total of 43 minutes, his heart stops and the execution for all intents and purposes is done.

But you know what tugs at these heartstrings more than the poor Mr Lockett’s execution? In 1999, Lockett and two friends were interrupted by two teenage girls, while in the middle of a home invasion. So all three males beat and raped one of the girls. Lockett and his two buddies beat both girls, before raping one of them. The second girl, Stephanie Neiman, was beaten a second time. They then bound her mouth and hands with duct tape. After driving her away from the house, Stephanie then had to watch for 20 minutes as one of Lockett’s mates dug a grave beside the road. Lockett shot her twice and ordered the others to bury her, even though she was still alive. Even Lockett’s mother wanted him to be executed. This might shock some people, but I’m struggling to feel sorry for Mr Lockett. He still got less than he deserved. Stephanie Neiman was murdered 2 weeks after finishing high school… for what exactly?

If anything, the so-called "botched" execution actually brought more attention to what this animal did

If anything, the so-called “botched” execution actually brought more attention to what this animal did

So why do we suddenly harbour such concerns over people like Mr Lockett and use these incidents to justify abolishing the death penalty? A minimal risk of suffering for 20-30 minutes compared with the lifetime of suffering they’ve caused their victims families? Or the suffering that prisoner will likely experience over the course of several decades in prison? Why accept several decades of suffering, but not 30 minutes?

In Australia, Carl Williams met his death with a metal bar courtesy of a fellow inmate. How does that rate on the cruel and inhumane scale when compared with lethal injection? I also don’t remember too many tears being shed when it was announced on the news that he’d been killed.

5. What if they’re innocent?

I’ve left the biggie to last. What if we kill someone who was innocent? It’s irrevocable. There’s no going back. We seem to accept that innocent men will continue to be sent to death row. If we accept that an innocent man can go to prison for a heinous crime, we need to start yelling and screaming in protest a lot further back than the execution.

How did the police make the arrest? What evidence was presented in court? Was the offender sufficiently represented? How were the jury selected, and how did they come to their decision? There’s a myriad of other factors that come into the process of sentencing. The rate of wrongful convictions in Australia for serious execution-worthy crimes is basically non-existent. Search for wrongful convictions in Australia and you’ll continuously find Lindy Chamberlain, The Mickleberg Brothers, and Andrew Mallard. None of which would even come close to being worthy of the death sentence. The argument against capital punishment always coincides with the amount of innocent men on death row in the United States. However, the U.S, their laws, their criminal justice system, and not to mention their serious racial issues, are a whole different beast.

Keep in mind I’m writing this in relation to Australia, not the United States, and I have enough faith in our system and our police to know that we wouldn’t experience the same problems. Australia isn’t the best role model when it comes to racial harmony, but when accusing someone of the most serious of crimes, race & ethnicity don’t appear to play a part (a la the Central Park Five). If a string of brutal killings occurs in Sydney or Melbourne, the police don’t automatically grab the nearest Aboriginal, Asian, or Muslim to pin the crime on. I’m not saying racial minorities aren’t unfairly targeted at different times, but not for crimes that would send them to the chair.

So, do we think Ivan Milat was stitched up? What about Martin Bryant? Or Katherine Knight? John Bunting? Adrian Bayley? These people were found to be guilty. They were all sentenced to life without parole, and there’s been barely a peep, with the exception of Milat, as to their innocence. The crimes they committed were brutal and there is no way they will see freedom again.

How do you pick the How and the Who? (Courtesy of http://lastsuppersbook.blogspot.com.au)

How do you pick the How and the Who?
(Courtesy of http://lastsuppersbook.blogspot.com.au)

I do hold two reservations should capital punishment return to Australia, although they aren’t big enough for me to jump the fence to the other side. It concerns the How and the Who and I’m not referring to Dr Seuss. For both, I freely admit I don’t have an answer but that’s not to say one doesn’t exist.

Firstly, how would we execute? I find it incredibly strange that with all our advances in medicine and weaponry, humans are yet to create a quick, relatively inexpensive, and pain-free method to execute someone. What about a dose of anesthetic to knock them out, followed by a pillow over the face?

And second, how do we assign someone to push the button, press the syringe, or flick the power point? What about the same doctors that turn off life support? Or ex-soldiers that have taken out enemies? What about bringing in an executioner from another country? Before you jump on your high horse about doctors and soldiers, those options were made in jest. As I said, I don’t have an answer.

A few final questions to let stew in your head:

  • Why do we protect a violent offender from execution, but leave other vulnerable inmates in prison to fend for themselves against said offenders. He/she could kill numerous people in prison but we still prefer to keep them alive even if it means several other inmates are at risk
  • Why do we place an offender in solitary confinement to protect the other inmates? Surely solitary confinement would be considered an even worse form of torture, both mentally and physically, and would come under Amnesty International’s banner of ‘cruel, degrading and inhumane’.
  • Is it humane for a family to see a prisoner trotted out in handcuffs and chains, with an armed guard on either side, so they can talk to them through a small piece of wire in a wall?

So what do you think? Don’t be afraid to jump the fence or sit on it if you’re undecided. I promise you won’t get electrocuted.

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4 thoughts on “A Matter of Life or Death

  1. Here comes another voice opposing capital punishment. You have raised some great and very interesting points but I felt the need to add in my opposing thoughts. This is purely because I feel being put to death in a humane way is hardly a fitting punishment for the types of crimes these people perform. 3-10 years of awaiting execution followed by 30 minutes of suffering hardly seems to fit some of the crimes that this punishment is set aside for. It’s funny (not funny haha) that the points in your argument against people claiming “killing is wrong” mirror my reasons for opposing the death penalty but for very different reasons. Why shouldn’t people who are convicted of such heinous crimes as you have mentioned above be punished for life? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a sadistic, puppy torturing fool who thrives off others suffering, but surely significant languish is fitting in these cases.

    Death to me has never seemed to be the appropriate course of action in these the most extreme of cases. The ultimate punishment in my eyes is to be removed from society, to stare for 50 years at four blank walls in a cold cell as you slowly lose you friends and family until you become a shell of the person you once were. You ask “How is this not cruel, inhumane or degrading?” My answer: It is all of those things. Which is what makes a true punishment.

    The fact remains that we don’t know what happens after we die. Is there some form of a hell? A place where wrong doers will suffer for an eternity? What if nothing happens? Or if even the worst people on Earth (the un-fixables) are somehow ridden of their horrifying behaviours with no consequence? The truth is we cannot answer these questions. So for now, I say no to the notion of capital punishment, with the hope that the worst of the worst criminals who are proven to be guilty, will suffer each and every day. Why should they not suffer the same fate as the people who are left to live with the knowledge of what happened to their child, best friend, mother or father are sure to continue to suffer daily?

    I’m not saying i’m right and you are wrong. There is no simple answer here. This is a contentious issue which is why there are so many differing points of view. My thoughts are just something for all of us to ponder.

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    • Thankyou so much for the comment! I love reading everyone’s opinion, especially if it differs to mine because it only helps the discussion further. And you make some great points 😉

      You’ve hit upon my one and only reason for possibly not wanting the death penalty, and the one thing I purposefully left out of the article. I definitely agree that some of these people don’t deserve execution and such an easy way out, and there is an element of retribution and justification to have them sitting in a small shoebox for decades in response to what they’ve done.

      However… in saying that, I guess I look at it from a societal perspective i.e. ‘What’s the best possible outcome for society?’ To me, that would be to rid the world of the worst offenders, free up a cell, free up those resources, and also let the family of the victim/s grieve in peace. Not having been in the position where someone I’ve known and loved has been murdered, I can’t fully comprehend how a victim’s family would feel, and whether they would prefer the murderer to be killed or to spend life in prison. If Milat comes up in a news story for whatever reason, would it bring back terrible memories for the families of the victims, or would they take some miniscule bit of pleasure knowing he’s still squirming in prison?

      The other thing I thought of was putting the most violent of offenders to serious work while doing time (cue sterotypical image of prisoners bashing out number plates) and then at least they’d be giving something back to the community, even if it was only small. But it could be seen to be treating prisoners as “slaves” and I imagine that it wouldn’t get past the civil liberatarians either 😉

      Great conversation starter hey 😉

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  2. I wasn’t aware that you were an Aussie. My western history is a bit lagging, but I’m almost positive many of the early European “heinous criminals” were banished as NLMC (commenter) pointed out… and removed from everything they held dear.

    However, as you pointed out, the victims of heinous crime as well as their families have been afflicted with this suffering. It will never go away, and the only way to ensure someone else (like during Bundy’s escape that you mention) doesn’t suffer the same fate, is to correct the error. To put it in computer terms, if a file is corrupt or you find a harmful virus/trojan, you delete it and press on. Keeping the infected data file puts the rest of your system at risk.

    Good article, and appreciate your comments you left on mine. Cheers

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