The Journal of Public Policy

The Changing Global Perception on the Death Penalty

By Eric E. Hack, Walden University

The global perception of the death penalty is definitely changing.  Capital punishment is an age old response to certain crimes.  Some crimes punishable by death once included adultery, blasphemy, and questioning the government (Roth 2011).  In most countries in the world today, especially in free societies, adultery and blasphemy are not crimes at all and speaking out against the government is a protected right.  Crimes such as murder, however, are as illegal now as they were millennia ago.  But a global shift in how to punish crimes like murder has steadily altered perceptions on criminal justice and corrections policy.

To date, the abolition of capital punishment has become so popular that 140 nations around the world have formally abolished it partially or entirely (DPIC 2015).  The charter of the European Union (2000) requires the abolition of the death penalty as a price for becoming a state-party to the union.  Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International (2015) view capital punishment as a human rights violation (centrally because it denies people the right to life), and argue that the death penalty has done nothing to deter crime.  In 2014, the UN General Assembly called a fifth time for a moratorium of the death penalty (Cornell 2015).  UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon declared capital punishment to be a “cruel and inhumane practice” (UN News Centre 2014). Even while the United States federal government maintains capital punishment as a legal practice, several states have banned the death penalty (Roth 2011).

According the DPIC (2015), approximately only 58 countries remain retentionist of capital punishment.  Considering that 58 out of 198 countries with litigation regarding the death penalty view it as a viable form of crime correction and control, it is clear the global consciousness toward execution has shifted since the early days of Draco’s laws where virtually every crime was punishable by death (Roth 2011).  However, this global shift should not indicate whether the abolitionist or retentionist views are right or wrong.  Capital punishment is a challenge thrown before society as to what is the greater good and how can we separate ourselves from the criminals.

Abolitionist movements tend to be extreme and provide only a blanket view of capital punishment.  They often argue a black and white interpretation of the issue and seem to willfully exclude the prevalent grey areas of the debate.  There are several cases where the execution of a criminal could be considered a reasonable option.  For instance, the execution of a serial murderer would likely be viewed as a logical option.  A serial murderer can not be reintegrated into society and is a persistent threat to society.  Amnesty International (2015) may agree that such an offender is a threat, but would argue that taking the offender’s life does not separate us from the offender and makes us guilty of committing the worst human rights violation, the denial of the right to life.

Recent movements to reinstate the death penalty in prominent countries that have abolished capital punishment (South Africa being one) have raised serious questions about the possibility of total abolition (News24 2013).  Acts such as atrocities by war criminals, serial murderers and rapists, mass murders, and terrorists represent a final stage in the argument for or against capital punishment.  Mass gang rapes and other heinous crimes have bolstered (namely among Millennials) support of the death penalty (News24 2014; Keating 2014).  If this is a reflection of global views to come with the greater influence of the Millennial generation in global politics, we may very well see a generational 180-degree shift in international attitudes toward capital punishment.  The ratio of 140 abolitionist to 58 retentionist nations may drastically change in the years to come as Millennials are continually forced to bear witness to and suffer from a world with groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS, despotic regimes such as the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, and acts of mass violence such as the Boston Bombing and 2012 Oslo mass shooting.

The debate over capital punishment involves discussing it as it applies to the social and individual concepts of morality, justice, security, and fairness.  The grounds of morality are the shakiest upon which to stand because no one person, let alone society, has a universal set of moral principles. What does seem to be happening currently is a general social moral that killing a human for a crime is wrong.  At first glance, it does seem hypocritical to take the life of one person because that person took the life of another person.  Yet, we should consider that the growing support of abolition is related to a disparity (or imbalance) among the other factors in the debate and less about an actual moral objection toward state execution of human life.

Justice is “[p]rotecting rights and punishing wrongs using fairness” (Law Dictionary 2015) and “a scheme or system of law in which every person receives his/her/its due from the system, including all rights, both natural and legal” (Hill & Hill, 2007). However, “[i]t is possible to have unjust laws, even with fair and proper administration of the law of the land as a way for all legal systems to uphold this ideal” (Law Dictionary 2015) and “attorneys, judges, and legislatures often get caught up more in procedure than in achieving justice for all” (Hill & Hill 2007).  This produces a moral dilemma as we as a society want justice for a crime but recognize our justice system may not actually be just. How then can we morally agree to let a possibly unjust system take a human life?

Security is both real and perceived (Schneier 2003).  Real security is easy enough to identify: walls, armed guards, virus detection software, etc.  Perceived security often walks hand-in-hand with real security.  For instance, high and almost impenetrable walls would make a property owner feel more secure.  Having a body guard would certainly make someone feel more secure.  We are all more secure in mind knowing our antivirus software is up to date.  Perceived security differs from real security in that perception is dependent on the perceiver (Schneier 2003).  How safe we feel is not an accurate metric as to how safe we actually are.  Many policies geared toward public security exist more to create peace of mind than to create actual security.  Bottom line, the safer we feel, the happier we are.

Looking at the issue this way, we can see where support of capital punishment is derived.  By killing a violent offender, society has permanently removed a threat to it (real security).  This also makes the society feel much safer (perceived security).  If a serial killer were caught and executed, the citizens residing in the serial killer’s area of activities would feel far safer.  However, an unbalanced justice system means that many innocents could be put to death in the name of societal security.  Once again, the immorality of compliance in the execution of innocents will likely push many away from supporting the power of capital punishment in that broken system.  Not to mention, the threat of possibly being wrongfully accused and executed makes society feel unsafe and insecure.

“The criminal justice system is sometimes thought of as a kind of sieve in which the innocent are progressively sifted out  from the guilty, who end up behind bars… [T]he sieve works another way as well.  It sifts the affluent out from the poor, so it is not merely the guilty who end up behind bars, but the guilty poor… It is clear that the most powerful criminal justice policy makers come from the have-plenties, not  from the have-littles.  It is no surprise that the legislators and judges–those who make the laws that define criminality and those who interpret those laws–are predominantly members of the upper classes, if not at birth then surely by the time they take office… Further, there is considerable evidence that the American criminal justice system has been used throughout its history in rather unsubtle ways to protect the interests of the powerful against the lower classes and political dissenters.” (Reiman & Leighton 2013)

Fairness in the justice system is the final piece to this puzzle.  The disparity of unfairness in the justice system is well documented.  Where a system is supposed to be in place that treats all parties equal, we have a system that is influenced by wealth, position of power, race, and ethnicity (Stohr, Walsh, & Hemmens 2009; Reiman & Leighton 2013).  Though on paper the law weighs all equally, our adversarial court system is no different from Hammurabi’s system in which the wealthy and the powerful were subject to a different form of justice than the poor and disenfranchised (Roth 2011).  Once more, we see where society finds it increasingly difficult morally to allow the State to execute a human being in the name of “justice.”  An unfair system in which “attorneys, judges, and legislatures often get caught up more in procedure than in achieving justice for all” (Hill & Hill 2007) that “has been used throughout its history in rather unsubtle ways to protect the interests of the powerful against the lower classes and political dissenters” (Reiman & Leighton 2013) does not provide society enough moral leverage to support state execution of a human being.

Looking past the all-encompassing views of groups such as Amnesty International (2015) that capital punishment is a crime against humanity because it denies the recipient the basic right to life, the principle reason many abolitionists cite for the moratorium of the death penalty is the moral fear of the execution of an innocent who has been wrongfully convicted.  Diligent research has been conducted into this matter.  There have been innocents put to death.  This cannot be overlooked.  Their deaths should be remembered and used as guides toward policy change and future policy creations pertaining to capital punishment.  Wrongful convictions occur in many ways.  The most common factors are—“eyewitness error – from confusion or faulty memory, government misconduct – by both the police and the prosecution, junk science – mishandled evidence or use of unqualified “experts,” snitch testimony – often given in exchange for a reduction in sentence, false confessions – resulting from mental illness or retardation, as well as from police torture, [and] other – hearsay, questionable circumstantial evidence, etc.” (Warden, Armbrust, & Linzer 2001)

The threat of wrongful conviction should not be the reason why a state abolishes the death penalty.  Doing something out of fear is not the same as following a moral compass.  As the current criminal justice system exists, it would not be moral to execute a person convicted of a crime if any shred of doubt existed.  In a perfect reality, most cases in which capital punishment could be administered should and would not be, because most criminal cases are not “slam dunk” cases.  Yet, this occurs and creates many abolitionists of the death penalty.  However, simply abolishing the death penalty will not alleviate social complicity in ruining innocent lives.  The broken justice system by which a wrongful conviction is administered would remain the same.  To put an innocent in prison indefinitely is as morally wrong as executing the innocent.  What must be changed is the legal process, not one tool used in the process.

To conclude, from a strictly pragmatic point of view, the use of capital punishment does permanently remove a threat to society; however, so does indefinite incarceration.  The state execution of one murderer falls within the same moral confines as sponsorship of war and the mass deaths created by that war.  War exists because there comes a time when societal views clash so drastically and a real or perceived threat to society is too great to ignore.  Violence that results in many deaths becomes the only option.  Capital punishment is often viewed as a form of retribution (Stohr, Walsh, & Hemmens 2009; Roth 2011); however, fundamentally it is an act agreed upon by a society out of the desire for security, just as war is.  It is justified morally by the appearance of fairness and blind justice.  Unfortunately, the criminal justice system is by no means fair or just.  Policies that govern the justice system are not necessarily just to begin with, but serve to protect an ideal specific to a select group within a society.  Therefore, an individual aware of their complicity in executing a human being in the name of an unreliable and unfair system cannot morally support the death penalty.   However, as with war, there are cases in which no other way to preserve societal security can be found.  A mass murderer can be just as deadly behind bars with pen and paper as he/she is roaming freely within a society. At this point the moral question is no longer whether or not killing a killer is hypocritical, but whether killing a killer prevents the greater threat to society the killer poses alive and imprisoned.

Eric Hack is a doctoral candidate conducting research in the field of Homeland Security Policy and Coordination in the Criminal Justice Department at Walden University.  He holds a Master’s of Criminal Justice: Homeland Security and Disaster Management from Excelsior College.