Lack of evidence? Don’t let that deter you. Hang ‘em high!

Following Guido Fawkes’ little blaze (ahem) of publicity with his “bring back hanging” e-petition campaign, there’s been a lot of stuff (including from him) about the supposed “deterrence” of having a noose in the criminal justice system.

Crime rates are high because we don’t have judges with black caps and men like Albert Pierrepoint to dish out justice. Apparently.

So, if you’re looking for evidence to support an argument that capital punishment is a deterrent against serious crime – then you can find it. This chap on the Telegraph site will run you through some. Equally, if you’re looking for evidence to support an argument that capital punishment is not a deterrent against serious crime, then, yes, you can find that as well.

This is precisely why abolitionists like Amnesty have for so long said that there is no proven "deterrent effect" attaching to the death penalty. Because there isn’t.

In this sense it’s fallacious to say that capital punishment “works”. It works to kill people, yes (and not always quickly or painlessly, and not even always guilty people either), but it doesn’t work in the criminological sense of deterrence.

In the absence of the deterrence argument capital punishment's proponents should either drop their support or give other reasons for it. The major alternative "pro" argument is that perpetrators of the most serious crimes "deserve" the "ultimate" penalty – death at the hands of the state. Actually, if you listen closely, the "just desserts" viewpoint is never far away from death penalty debates. "Heinous" criminals don't deserve to live. Why should they when their victim has been cruelly killed?

In a sense, this would at least be an honest argument about ethics, societal norms and what values a decent society lives by. On the abolitionist side Amnesty and others argue that the death penalty is wrong, full-stop. It's a human rights violation in its own right. 

Everything else is subsidiary to this: the arbitrariness of its application (poor people, ethnic minorities and the badly-represented being more likely to die, as in the US); the error rate (confidence-sapping miscarriages like the Birmingham Six here or the 139 US death row prisoners released on grounds of innocence since 1973); its politicisation (Ken Saro-Wiwa and others in Nigeria; executions after protests in Iran); or even the means of extinguishing life (is a lethal injection "better than" hanging?).

In the end all of these (individually quite powerful reasons to be opposed) are themselves "utilitarian" arguments. They still skirt around the central question: is it right to invest the governing authority with the powers to judicially kill?

In the end you’re either for or against it on essentially moral grounds. I’m against.

Meanwhile, cases like Troy Davis’ in the USA just ram the point home to me: it’s wrong anyway (a justice system should dispense justice not death), and it leads to horrendous cases like this where a man has spent 20 years on death row for a crime he may not have committed. What more evidence do you need to oppose Guido’s ill-judged idea to unearth a relic of the past?

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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