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Howard League for Penal reform

The following is reproduced without permission, but I assume it would be given.

Q. The number of violent crimes has risen in Britain and continues to rise. Don't we need the death penalty to deter killers?

A. The rise in violent crime began before the abolition of the death penalty and can not, therefore, be attributed to it. Capital punishment does not act as an effective deterrent. Numerous studies have been commissioned by pro and anti campaigners; none has provided any evidence that the existence of the death penalty acts as an effective deterrent. In the United States, where some states have the death penalty and others do not, there is no significant difference in their murder rates.

Q. In a highly developed legal system, with the right of appeal and high standards of proof, surely the chance of executing an innocent person is minimal?

A. As long as the death penalty remains as a punishment, the risk will always be present. There are well known cases of prisoners executed who were later found to be innocent. In some countries, executions are carried out within hours of sentencing, leaving little or no time for appeals or petitions for clemency. A recent study in the USA has produced evidence of 349 cases in which innocent people were wrongly convicted of capital offences; 23 of these were unjustifiably executed.

Q. Shouldn't the death penalty be used against terrorists, who threaten the very foundations of society?

A. People who resort to violence to further their cause are often prepared to die for that cause. Recourse to the death penalty can enable terrorists to create martyrs of themselves for their cause. In such cases the death penalty may act as an incentive rather than a deterrent. Executions of terrorists can increase the likelihood of revenge killings and retaliation against the innocent, leading to further loss of life.

Q. Isn't it cheaper for the state to execute a prisoner than to keep him or her imprisoned for life?

A. Even if human rights could be expressed in terms of economics, the death penalty can be an extremely costly punishment in view of the elaborate appeals procedures aimed at minimizing the possibility of an irreversible error. Two studies undertaken in the USA on this issue have both reached the same conclusion. One of these was done in the state of New York where, although the crime rate is high, the death penalty has been abolished. It concludes that the average murder trial and the first stage of appeals cost more than twice as much as it costs to keep a person in prison for life. The expense of maintaining maximum security for those prisoners awaiting final justice are not included in this comparison.

Q. It is easy to be against the death penalty in the abstract, but how would one feel if ones close relative or friend was murdered?

A. An execution can never restore the life or lessen the loss for the family of the relative. Proper response to the very real needs of the relatives of the victims of crime is essential. However, an execution also causes grief and pain to the family of an executed prisoner. The channeling of resources into more effective law enforcement, counselling and compensation for the victims' families are among the measures which can help the families and help to prevent further crime.

Q. What evidence is there to show that the death penalty is applied in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner?

A. Even in the most sophisticated and stringent criminal justice systems, the sentencing process can be affected by factors such as the defendant's resources, race, religion and by public support for the death penalty. There are cases where a prisoner has been executed while another whose crimes are equally grave and whose circumstances are similar is not. In South Africa the death penalty is disproportionately imposed on the black population by an almost entirely white judiciary. All judges are white except for one black judge in the Bophuthatswana "homeland". Recent research has shown that black defendants stand a greater chance than white defendants of receiving the death penalty, especially when the victim is white. For example, between June 1982 and June 1983, of 81 blacks convicted of murdering whites, 38 were hanged; of 52 whites convicted of murdering whites, only one was hanged. None of the 21 whites convicted of murdering blacks was hanged, but 55 of the 2,208 blacks convicted of murdering blacks were hanged.

Q. Isn't it more important for Al to defend prisoners of conscience than common criminals?

A. At the core of Al's work is its statute, adopted by the International Council, the organisation's supreme governing body. In article I, Al's statute specifies work for the release of prisoners of conscience, fair trials for political prisoners and an end to torture and the death penalty in all cases. All these objectives need Al's full attention and the death penalty is no exception - as has been stressed in a number of International Council decisions, most recently in 1985.

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18 October 2013 306 18 October 2013