What price capital punishment?

Last month’s highly publicised executions in Indonesia make the need to interrogate the premise of the death penalty more urgent than ever, writes Melanie Smart.

The execution of Myuran Sukumaran, 34, and Andrew Chan, 31, convicted members of the Bali 9 in Indonesia last month, raised a lot of questions about the nature of criminal punishment.

Of course, we took exception to these executions as Andrew and Myuran were Australian citizens. No country will ever be happy to see another state take the lives of its citizens.

But the broader question is why do some states still enforce the death penalty?

Justifications for Punishment

When we look at sentencing once somebody has been convicted, we understand that there are reasons why we punish people, and why we use particular penalties. It’s normally accepted that there are five justifications for punishment.
The first is general deterrence: to try and create consequences so other people won’t be inclined to risk it. The problem is, in the drug trade, a state execution hardly seems like the biggest risk. Next is personal deterrence: to stop that individual from reoffending. Being dead is certainly one way to stop crime, but in this case it was clear that the offenders had been reformed. There isn’t much suggestion that they will return to drug trafficking if released, so why would such a harsh punishment be necessary?

The next consideration is protection: to keep the community safe by keeping the offenders away from them. This is never a strong argument when considering the death penalty, since that protection could as easily be created by life in prison. And in this case, again we can point to the reformation of the offenders and see that the community won’t benefit from their death. Then we have retribution, that society can have revenge on those who have transgressed the accepted boundaries. Although it’s normal for victims and their close ones as well as general society to have anger towards offenders, surely we can impose a limit. The base instincts of violence that some people feel towards heinous offenders shouldn’t force the state to enact those desires. Regardless, we have not seen such outcries calling for the death of these men.

Finally we come to rehabilitation, where offenders are reformed, their issues – such as anger or substance abuse – are managed and they are given an opportunity to become contributing members of society. This purpose is never served by the death penalty, as a dead person cannot be a contributing citizen. We have seen Myrun Sukumaran and Andrew Chan rehabilitate. We have seen them become role models and leaders. Surely this is a commendable achievement, and one the Indonesian corrections system should seek to claim and to be proud of. If these men die, their contributions will be lost and the example set to other prisoners will not be one of encouragement.

Arguments against the Death Penalty

So far there seems to be a strong case that the purposes of punishment are not served by the enforcement of these executions. But there are broader societal and philosophical reasons why these men deserve clemency.
It is evident that the state has strong moral authority. As the institution which sets and enforces laws, it leads society and can have huge impact on behaviour and how people understand right and wrong. So what kind of society will we end up with if the state kills people?

The only statement made by a government on the value of life should be that it is wrong to kill people. Where human dignity is respected and human life is valued by the state, this is a strong message of decency which can set up expectations in society. The right to live should be inalienable, leaving no government the option of executing its citizens. The law and the justice system should at all times remain above violence and only then will it be irreproachable. Otherwise its core function, to preserve an ordered society, is undermined.

Strong arguments have been made that such cruel punishments brutalise individuals living under those laws. A study in 2010 of figures from the FBI shows that murder rates in the USA are higher in states that have the death penalty than those that don’t. Enforcing the death penalty inevitably leads to anger and resentment in the community, which will not serve the aims of punishment.

A state execution, and in particular the death by firing squad that Sukumaran and Chan suffered , is cruel, inhumane and degrading.

A final thought should go to the people who will be involved with the executions. Prison guards won’t just be keeping an eye on these prisoners, they will be bringing them their last meal and preparing them to die. Some unfortunate men will have the job of shooting these men and medical professionals will be called on to call time of death. Not all of those participating will have a choice, and even if those who volunteer may not fully understand how their actions could weigh on their conscious in years to come. Indonesian authorities understand the stigma attached to enacting the death penalty, so for each prisoner twelve soldiers aim and shoot but only three guns are loaded, thus keeping the identity of who killed the prisoner a mystery. This protection hardly goes far enough, but merely serves to highlight the horrendous nature of a state execution.

In Australia, we long ago rid ourselves of the death penalty, and we fought to have Myrun Sukumaran and Andrew Chan returned home. The reaction to these sentences has been an appropriate disgust. Despite Andrew and Myuran’s deaths having now come to pass, let’s never forget the tragedy that is a state taking lives. A tragedy which only promises to continue as Indonesian authorities pledge to enforce execution for all serious drug offenders.