Death Penalty
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Death Penalty – The Argument or Debate?

Death Penalty | From 2000-2015, Supreme Court imposed 60 death sentences and subsequently admitted that it had erred in 15 of them. It admitted that it has arbitrarily imposed the most extreme punishment. Moreover, the recent case where six members of a nomadic tribe spent 16 years in prison in Maharashtra, three of them were on death row for 13 of these years. A three-judge Bench has now found that unreliable testimony had been used to convict the six men. This whole incident gave rise to the question – Is death penalty the right judgement?

Many a times the public demands death sentence on cases related to heinous crimes and some of these cases even get one. However, if we jump into the section of Ethics and morality for a while, the debate gets divided into two segments.

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Death penalty is never an option

  • Executions occurred in 5.2 cases for every 1 lakh murders. Such a selection cannot be anything but arbitrary.
  • The death penalty is error-ridden (25%) and execution is the ultimate, irrevocable punishment, the risk of executing an innocent person can never be eliminated.
  • The death penalty unfairly targets the poor and marginalised. Those without capital get the punishment. Penurious prisoners on legal aid get it the most, while others with private lawyers remain untouched.
  • India’s murder rate has declined continuously since 1991 and at present is the lowest.
  • The death penalty is impossible to administer fairly or rationally. The Supreme Court has repeatedly admitted that it has arbitrarily imposed this most extreme punishment.
  • Punishment should not imitate crime.
  • As per the recent Death Penalty India Report by the National Law University, Delhi, the structural flaws in our criminal procedure and criminal justice system are most pronounced in death penalty cases.
  • The Police in India is not known for its probity or efficiency.
  • Delays in the Criminal Justice System disproportionately affect those who suffer the tyranny of the uncertainty of their life.
  • Most of the civilised world has abolished it.

Death Penalty should be an option.

  • The punishment is not arbitrary because it comes out of a judicial process. To call it arbitrary, one has to necessarily prove the process as flawed.
  • It is being implemented in the “rarest of the rare” cases and the fact is during the last 13 years, only four people have been executed.
  • The capital punishment system is a filter that selects the worst of the worst.
  • The hanging of Ajmal Kasab and Yakub Memon strongly affirms India’s commitment to the protection of life.
  • People criticise it on arbitrariness, irreversibility and human rights and these are not valid arguments. It is not reflection of uncivilised society e.g.; USA upheld it constitutionally.
  • Its constitutionality is upheld even in liberal democracies like U.S. It is not reflection of uncivilised society.
  • India’s neighbourhood is not peaceful. India has got troubled borders. Several forces are trying to destabilise the very idea of our nation from across the border.
  • The sacredness of life can only be seen to be protected if those who take it away are proportionately punished.

Even though death penalty is an option, ‘Hanging till death” needs to be reconsidered. The fundamental right to life and dignity enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution also means the right to die with dignity.

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Most of the civilised world has abolished it. India certainly does not need it as well; it serves no purpose. For deterrence to work, the severity of the punishment has to coexist with the certainty and swiftness of the punishment. The death penalty has not deterred terrorism, murder or even theft. For over a century, stealing attracted death penalty in England, and spectators at public hangings often had their pockets picked! No study has shown that death penalty deters murder more than life imprisonment. Constitutional, legal and policy issues cannot be determined by the victim’s understandable hunger for revenge without leading to a frenzy where the death penalty is demanded, as it often is, for wholly inappropriate cases (accidental deaths, cheating, etc.).

On the Contrary, the Law Commission of India has attempted to analyse the need for death penalty. In its 35th Report, the Law commission correctly called for its retention in order to see the impact on a new republic. The more recent 262nd Report could not recommend the punishment’s absolute abolition. Cases of violent terror are constant reminders of the need to protect national stability by ensuring appropriate responses to such actions, and the death penalty forms a part of the national response. It is in this idea that there exists a moral support for the death penalty. A punishment cannot be judged by its impact on criminals but by its impact on those who are still innocent.

However, the constitutionality of the death penalty will continue to be challenged and, sooner or later, the Supreme Court will have to answer whether absence of political will is sufficient ground to override the right to life.

Photo Credits: Noelle Otto




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