BY VIVIAN OFRE (Voice of Reason, Nigeria)

I desire more than anything else for the world to become a better place. I want to walk on the streets with my shoulders high, without reservation or fear of being raped, robbed or murdered by a criminal. I want an assurance that my siblings, friends and even my unborn children can achieve justice, when and if anything bad does happen to me. I want ultimately, a society that is safe for all to live in. Tall dreams I must say, but I believe there are many others who share in this dream. The reality though is that, crime does exist. It is part of society. It does not hide anymore; our school kids are shot by gun men, our daughters are raped and public treasuries are looted by corrupt politicians. This reality is the reason we have in place; a criminal justice system: to fight crime, mete out punishment against offenders and hopefully, achieve justice for all. 

At the heart of the quest to fight crime lies a big question; How should it be done? and what forms of punishment will be most effective in serving as deterrence to others? The question of how, can be said to be accountable for the differing opinions between those in favour of a particular action and those against it. So that even though there is an agreement between both parties that crime should be fought, there is a clash on what method or approach to be adopted. That being established, I can comfortably move on to the issue of the death penalty, the focus of this essay, which according to Wikipedia is defined as a ‘government sanctioned practice whereby a person is put to death by the state, as a punishment for a crime.’

On the death penalty, there are many who argue for its use as a punishment for severe crimes like rape, murder, homicide, and treason (for military related cases). There are also those who argue against its use. This essay therefore, will take a look into the arguments from both sides of the divide and examine the ethics and principle behind these arguments. There are however, a few pertinent questions I must raise in order to put us in perspective going forward; why is the death penalty an option in punishing criminals for their crimes? What is the singular and most important objective of the criminal justice system; rehabilitation or retribution? Is it morally justifiable for the state to put an individual to death on any account whatsoever? Is the option of death penalty a problem-solution mismatch? And finally, does the presence of the death penalty for criminals bring closure for victims of crimes and their relatives? I will in subsequent paragraphs attempt to answer these questions using the arguments from both proponents and opponents of the death penalty.

The underlying principle for the most arguments made in support of the death penalty is captured in Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to Henry L Pierce, “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and under a just God, cannot long retain it.” This I believe answers the question of whether the death penalty is morally justifiable. If an individual is fully aware of the consequences of his actions, and still goes ahead to act that way, then he should take responsibility for his actions. Proponents further argue that it serves as deterrent to would-be criminals. Though the opposition claims that the death penalty does not do much to deter, it is believed that it’s deterrent effect outweighs that of other forms of punishment like life imprisonment. Other arguments include; the leniency of the law and achieving justice for crime-victims.

The general idea for those in support of the death penalty can be summed up in this popular quote by Theodore Roosevelt; “As regards capital cases, the trouble is that emotional men and women always see only the individual whose fate is up at the moment, and neither his victim nor the millions of unknown individuals who would in the long run be harmed by what they ask. Moreover, almost any criminal, however brutal, has usually some person, often a person whom he has greatly wronged, who will plead for him. If the mother is alive she will always come, and she cannot help feeling that in that case a pardon should be granted. It was really heartrending to have to see kinfolk and friends of murderers who were condemned to death, and among the rare occasions when anything governmental or official caused me to lose sleep were times when I had to listen to some poor mothers making a plea for a criminal so wicked, so utterly brutal and depraved, that it would have been a crime on my part to remit his punishment”.

Beautiful and convincing as these arguments sound, one would think that the opposition has nothing to say on this issue of the death penalty, but there are also very overwhelming arguments from this side of the divide. The opposition runs a narrative that the death penalty creates a cycle of violence which destroys the avenger as well as the offender. They argue that the death penalty does not heal people, or even end their pain, and as such is not relevant, as even some victims of crimes do not subscribe to it. Also, at the fore front of the opposition’s argument is the fact that innocent lives are been put at risk, considering the fact that the process that leads to the conviction of an individual can be compromised. Furthermore, they believe that no civilian’s job description should include killing another person.

Christians get their arguments from the Holy Bible, citing texts on love and forgiveness. Finally, the opposition argues that the death penalty has done nothing to reduce crime rates in states where it is practiced. Really compelling pro and con arguments for the death penalty, but the question then is, who wins the debate? The proposition or opposition? Who is right and who is wrong or are they both right? To answer these questions, I will revisit the questions I raised earlier, about the ultimate goal of our criminal justice system. If it is for rehabilitation, then side opposition has the day, but if it is for retribution, then side proposition wins the debate about the relevance of the death penalty.

However, regardless of the basis upon which the death penalty is adopted as means of punishment by our criminal justice system, I believe, just like Eliot Spitzer, that because our criminal justice system is fallible, despite the best efforts of most within it to do justice, the death penalty should be abandoned to protect those who are innocent, no matter the percentage. On the question of closure for victims, each case should be treated specially depending on the individuals involved, but more generally, counselling and adequate support should be provided by the state.

On a final note, like the death penalty, there are other issues that plaque society. And there will always be differing views concerning these issues, and this diversity is what makes mankind unique; different backgrounds, culture, belief systems and a sum of all their experiences is what makes people who they are and possibly the reason for differing opinions. Ultimately, on every issue, we should seek the line of action that provides the most benefit for all the parties involved.