Should the death penalty be abolished?

Should the death penalty be abolished?

There has been only one instance in my 51 years on this planet when I have been the victim of a crime. It happened during the time I was travelling from New Delhi to Bengaluru 27 years back. I was 23 then and a suitcase full of valuables I was carrying was stolen during the journey. There were a number of items in the suitcase that had good monetary value. In addition there were some items to which I had a deep sentimental attachment.

I notified the authorities in the train but as it happens most often in such cases, the suitcase was never recovered. I have also faced a certain amount of bullying in school but that can hardly be termed as criminal as there is no recognized law against it. The bullying I was subjected to did leave a scar on me but eventually I recovered and have left that behind.

The question I would like to answer in this article relates to much more serious crimes like cold blooded, brutal murders. There are several countries like UK and Portugal that have abolished the death penalty. In US some states have done away with capital punishment while a few like Texas still award it quiet often. 

Portugal agreed to extradite the dreaded underworld Don Abu Salem after India gave an undertaking that he would not be awarded the death penalty when he is tried for his crimes in India. In India the death penalty is awarded only in the rarest of rare cases and there are also stringent criteria to determine what constitutes a rarest of rare case.

Let us now examine the gist of the matter viz: is awarding the death penalty justified? The arguments for and against are several. Naturally, the people who have lost their near and dear ones to crimes of a horrendous nature are all for it. It is but natural to thirst for revenge when a person’s son, mother, father, sister or a friend is killed in cold blood. Probably I would feel the same if I had suffered such a loss.

Human rights activists on the other hand provide several arguments in favor of abolishing the death penalty that seem valid. I am reminded of a very old movie called Kanoon which I saw in the television when I was a kid. The lead actors in the movie were the doyens of the 60’s cinema, Ashok Kumar, Rajendra Kumar and Nanda. The movie was about capital punishment.  

The movie presents the argument that even though every bit of evidence in a crime may point to a certain person as guilty and there may be absolutely no reason to doubt it, there is always a chance that it is deceptive. In the movie Ashok Kumar who plays the role of a judge, is actually seen by the hero enacted by Rajendra Kumar, when he appears to be committing the crime. 

In the end it is revealed that it was another person who had exactly the same facial features as Ashok Kumar who commits the crime. Ashok Kumar in the end makes a small speech denouncing capital punishment and why we can never take another human being’s life based on evidence, no matter how strong and foolproof it appears to be.  

Unlike reel life, in real life things are not so simple. We hear of horrendous crimes where men and women kill brutally, cold bloodedly, without any compunction and in addition do not show any remorse when they are confronted with their crimes. The Nirbhaya case comes to the mind. Another case that comes to the mind is that of the 2008 terrorist attacks when members of the LET opened fire indiscriminately on people not even sparing women and young children.

In such cases where there is absolutely no doubt about the horrendous nature of the crime, no doubt about who the criminal is and the crime falls into the rarest of rare category and there is no room for mercy, I for one feel that the death penalty is justified. Human rights activists often come up with another argument that the state or in other words the society does not have a right to take a human life.

But the people who commit these cold blooded murders do not have one iota of conscience and if let loose in the society again they would unhesitatingly commit similar crimes. There is also the question of providing justice to the families of the victims. It is very easy to call oneself an activist and preach about not taking human life. It is only people who experience the anguish and pain of losing their near and dear ones that feel the need for a closure of some kind. I am afraid sentimental arguments like no one can take another human being’s life carry no water.

As far as the argument about the evidence being deceptive is concerned, I admit that is a valid argument. In China, a man was given capital punishment for a crime he did not commit and was executed subsequently. Evidence turned up 19 years after his execution that proved him innocent beyond all doubt. I saw this piece of news in the television when the man was being awarded a posthumous pardon and my heart went out to the man’s weeping widow and children.

This is the reason why the death penalty has to be reserved for exceptional cases and judges and jurors have to be very very stringent about the crimes for which they award the death penalty. Only in crimes of extreme brutality like terrorist attacks and assassinations, war crimes like the ones committed by the Nazis against the Jews during the second world war, the crimes of Pol Pot in Cambodia and other such crimes falling under the rarest of rare category should the death penalty be awarded.

Another important thing that jurors and judges have to keep in mind when awarding the death penalty is that there should be absolutely no doubt about the guilt of a criminal and the circumstances under which the crime was committed. Not even one innocent man should die due to the oversight of a judge or the jurors. Prosecuting attorneys should make it a point to put aside their ambitions and ask for the death penalty only in the rarest cases.

I would like to conclude this article by stating that in my opinion capital punishment is very important to keep crimes in check. But at the same time we need a judicial system that is very stringent about awarding the death penalty. It should be awarded only if no other form of punishment can be deemed adequate.

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