“Amnesty International’s total opposition to the death penalty comes from evidence that the death penalty fails to deliver justice for victims or perpetrators alike, and because it is so widely misused after often unfair trials and can be used against the innocent too. The case of Teina Pora here in NZ is one where an innocent could have died if we’d had the death penalty.” -Margie Taylor, Community Manager for Amnesty International New Zealand
As one of the most divisive topics, there are many misconceptions towards the death penalty and it’s supposed ‘effectiveness’. Here are some myths about the death penalty unpacked with the help of Amnesty International and students of Amnesty of Campus:
Myth: “Criminals have relinquished their rights by committing crimes” – Regardless of popular belief, even criminals have inalienable human rights as protected by international law. Those rights include the right to a fair trial, the right not to be tortured, etc. The aim of detention is to keep people out of society until they are fit to return. Denial of all their rights would lessen the chances of reintegrating.
Myth: “It deters crime and makes an example of criminals” – Michael Radelet and Traci Lacock of the University of Colorado-Boulder published a study in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology that there is no existing empirical evidence that supports the deterrence theory. States which have the death penalty have not reduced the amount of violent offences. In fact, that violent punishments lead to more violent offences in communities.
This is called the ‘Brutalisation Hypothesis’, that the death penalty is a symptom of a violent society as opposed to a solution to it. In addition, 88.2% of expert criminologists believe that the death penalty is not a deterrent – this is close to a total consensus in the field. The link towards death penalty and deterrence is therefore too weak. Rehabilitative systems have a far stronger record in delivering on crime prevention such as in the Netherlands. Let’s look for solutions that work, not ones that don’t.
Myth: “The death penalty removes the need to spend money on jail amenities” – It takes complicated situations and failure of systems to produce criminals. In my view: Spending money > the death of an innocent person or someone able to be reformed.
In the USA, the costs for death penalty cases are much higher than for keeping people in prison for the rest of their life. This is due to the high number of appeals in death penalty cases and pushed back execution dates.
Myth: “The death penalty gives ‘justice’ by making the victim’s family feel avenged” – Family members of victims interviewed by Amnesty International rarely indicate that they feel closure. Many do not seek revenge, but justice. There are other ways to deliver justice than resorting to the violence that took away their loved ones.
Myth: “The death penalty works for my country” – There are many flaws in the application of the death penalty worldwide. Much like Larry’s case, some may be executed with claims of innocence. Another phenomenon is that the threshold to use the death penalty isn’t for serious crimes like rape or murder, but is instead used to punish political dissenters (Iran, Sudan) or those who have committed petty crimes and is even used on minors (Iran).
The death penalty is disproportionately used on minorities and those from disadvantaged backgrounds as well (USA).
Many countries in South East Asia use the death penalty for drug crimes. However, the more useful response will be to treat addiction as a health issue and a symptom of societal problems as opposed to a criminal/individual issue.
Finally, executing for political dissent, petty crime and drug crime is against international law. As use of the death penalty is restricted, these do not satisfy the criteria for “most serious crimes” to execute an individual.
The Reality: When we end a criminal, we may not be ending the causes of crimes themselves. The death penalty should not be an excuse to avoid engaging with larger discourses. Crimes such as rape and abduction may not be solved by just ending one perpetrator; for lasting impact, we should dismantle rape culture and abuse against women. In global issues, it may be tempting to follow suit of the United States for example, but we must consider how issues of crime and punishment fit into New Zealand’s existing social context. Māori are overrepresented within prison populations, which reflects issues of colonisation still unsolved in our nation. If we adopt more punitive measures, we are not engaging with the real need to decolonise criminal justice and address systematic inequalities of how indigenous people may suffer under historical and present marginalisation.
When you think of a criminal, who do you see? Does he play chess? Does he like writing Christmas cards to staff members? Does he listen to classical music?* Or is he a complete monster? Despite society stating the ‘advantages’ of characterising criminals as inhuman, the more we do so, the less likely we can recognise the environmental factors that make criminals. As such, the less likely we are to intervene or reform.
New Zealand recognises this, and a priority of the New Zealand Human Rights Action Plan is to end the death penalty. This is especially important to remember on October the 10th, the International Day Against the Death Penalty. New Zealand wants to take a stance, and it’s time that we do too as informed New Zealanders.
We must think to ourselves, when a democratic society succumbs to a punitive system to allow the death of one with claims to innocence, it is not only a prisoner executed. It’s the principles of fairness and truth desecrated.
*Hobbies of Larry Swearingen in his obituary by the Innocence Project.
The Author would like to acknowledge the help of Margie Taylor and Homayra Shafiq of Amnesty International and Amnesty on Campus in writing this piece.