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The Capital Punishment Debate

Updated on January 1, 2018
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Among his varied other writing interests, Richard Parr aspires to creating interesting and inspiring stories about life.

"If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call."

— John McAdams - Marquette University/Department of Political Science, on deterrence

Few Subjects Raise Such Furore of Debate as Capital Punishment

What are the arguments and why such public outcry from both sides of the court?

Is it murder, revenge, or justice? Does it alleviate problems or create them?

The debate hinges on three questions:

  • Is it a deterrent to crime?
  • Is it cruel or unnecessary?
  • Is it right for the state to take the life of an individual?

However the question of whose argument is best, of what's black and what's white, becomes often overshadowed by the greyer tones of public opinion, indignation and fear.

After all the next victim could be a loved one, or even ourselves.

With such considerations at stake, it's important we have a clear objective to which we can implement effective, purposeful solutions. Unfortunately public anxiety frequently detracts from wise decision making, solutions tending to bypass careful debate in favour of baser knee-jerk reactions.

That said, history is also replete with well debated solutions that proved completely inadequate.

The question remains then:

What is the best thing to be done ethically, practically and of necessity with violent criminals?

For some, the death penalty isn't an ideal as much as the natural consequence of societal permissiveness.

This argument places the blame for extreme crime at the feet of society, not just the criminal. Any culture scornful of extreme violence while apathetic toward contributive harmful influences [e.g. access to alcohol, violent video games etc] is a society more interested in mowing the grass than getting to the root of the problem.

Such a moral neutrality will naturally effect two outcomes: corrupting influences will become entrenched resulting in escalating extreme crime. Having condoned the wind, society reaps the whirlwind.

Though advocates of this viewpoint do not see capital punishment as an ideal solution, they believe it will remain the only interim measure that controls the problem as long as society refuses to dig deeper.

Capital Punishment Within Australia

Historically, the European settlement of Australia resulted from an alternative to capital punishment —something reserved for the habitual offender. Transported by convict ship to serve their life sentences down-under, these 'law breakers' became the forbears of white Australia.

Thomas Barrett is believed to have been the first convict executed in Australia. Charged with stealing, he was tried, condemned and hanged all on the same day, 27 February 1788.

Not until the 19th century did opponents to this form of punishment arise. By the 20th century all states and territories had restricted or replaced its use, Queensland being the first in 1922, followed by New South Wales (1955), Tasmania (1968), Northern Territory & ACT (1973), Victoria (1975), South Australia (1976), and Western Australia (1984). The last execution being Ronald Ryan in the late 1960s.

Protesters demonstrate against the hanging of Ronald Ryan The last Australian to be led to the gallows and hung to death at Pentridge Prison
Protesters demonstrate against the hanging of Ronald Ryan The last Australian to be led to the gallows and hung to death at Pentridge Prison

Abolitionist vs. Retentionist

Apart from a few statutes that still retain execution for treason and piracy, the abolitionists have so far won their case, but this may prove to be a throne hard to retain if history does indeed repeat itself.

Is capital punishment a deterrent? The abolitionists resound 'No', the retentionists' reply 'It deters the one executed'.

Is it cruel or unnecessary? The abolitionists shout 'yes', the retentionists' retort, 'Taking a persons life does not have to involve cruelty, only justice. And justice is necessary.'

Is it right for the state to take the life of an individual? The abolitionists declare 'No', the retentionist responds, 'The State is only a tool of the people, if the people decide by vote that it is right to take a life, the state must comply.'

But to that the abolitionist replies, 'Capital punishment is revenge. One wrong does not right another. Just because capital punishment could be legal does not mean it is right, it just means it is legally wrong.'

And of course, there is always the potential for mistake. Consider the Christie Murders. The police suspected a man whose wife was killed. Interrogated him, got a confession, had him hanged. However, the murders continued… 'whoops, sorry mate, our mistake'.

After a few more murders they finally tracked down Reginald Christie. He hung too. They think they got the right man this time. The first was awarded a posthumous pardon -- Umm, how comforting.

What are your thoughts?

Your Verdict

Do you think Capital Punishment is a valid option?

See results

© 2010 Richard Parr


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    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 4 years ago from Australia

      Hi Colin, nice to have you visit and comment. Yes, the chance for erroneously executing the wrong person has always been a strong argument against the death penalty. However, with forensic evidence as accurate as it is today, I wonder if the argument is as strong as it used to be. I like what you say regarding prison being used as an opportunity for good in the offenders life. Unfortunately, from the little I know of prisons, they don't seem to foster much good. Appreciate your comments.

    • profile image

      Colin Neville 4 years ago

      Life imprisonment is a terrible penalty; as deterring as the death penalty, I would say, although I accept that most of the victim's relatives would not se it that way. It gives the murderer, at least in theory, the opportunity for some form of reflection on his or her life and an opportunity to do something creative and restorative in prison, e.g. self education; helping other prisoners; spiritual development. I was a police officer in the 1960s & 70s, and believed even then that the death penalty didn't fit with a modern society - where judicial mistakes or social prejudice can lead to unfair execution.

    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 6 years ago from Australia

      Thanks again Mark, that was a good response.

    • Mark Pitts profile image

      Mark Pitts 6 years ago from United States

      "There, but for the grace of God go I," applies in the case of poverty, disease, accidents, bad marriages, and all kinds of things. But I do not believe that the grace of God keeps me from being a murderer, a rapist, a pedophile, etc. At the same time, to be honest I would hate to be the one to "pull the switch," so there tha is. But as far as a perpetrators circumstances affecting their punishment, perhaps extreme poverty and hunger in the case of a murder in the course of a crime for food or shelter, or some other basic need, but I have been homeless, hungrey enough to eat things I'd prefer not to think about, and generally just really hard up, but I never thought that gave me license to kill another.

    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 6 years ago from Australia

      @Mark Pitts ~ appreciate your thoughts on this Mark, and agree that proof of guilt is a critical edge to justices sword.

      One of the ongoing difficulties to this debate is in determining a persons 'worthiness of death'. Should that worthiness be based upon the crime, or upon the repetitiveness of such crimes, or upon some less tangible factor; motive, mental stability, penchant for violence.

      Also, how prominently should the offenders circumstances be taken into account? After all, "there but for the grace of God go I", is a truth all of us may be less willing to confess then we carer to admit.

      Thanks for reading and leaving great thoughts.

    • Mark Pitts profile image

      Mark Pitts 6 years ago from United States

      Good Hub. I tend to agree somewhat with MFBIII, if there is a DNA match, it goes a long way towards certainty of guilt. To kill someone is such a final act that absolute proof of guilt should be mandatory for death, but if that is there, to remove a threat to society members does not mean they are not 'forgiven', just that they are no longer able to cause harm to others. Serial killers, serial rapist, child molesters, pedophiles, or those who have committed such horrendous acts that thay can't reasonably be trusted enough again to be released, even if they are forgiven as required by God and faith, I could accept the death penalty for such as those, if it is enacted quickly, so as not to in effect add a death penalty on a life sentence.

    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 6 years ago from Australia

      @moiragallaga ~ You make some good points. Any society interested in preserving its integrity and way of life is forced to make some tough decisions on this subject; there's a lot to be learnt from the analogy of the rotten apple ruining the barrel of apples if not removed.

      Regarding the right of the state, I suppose it comes down to how we interpret what the State is. Is it just a governing body, or a representative of the peoples will.

      Love your comments. Keep hubbing.

    • moiragallaga profile image

      Moira Garcia Gallaga 6 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

      This is very thought-provoking indeed Parrster. Personally, I believe in capital punishment for heinous crimes. But as I mentioned in an answer I posted on a question on the death penalty, the gaps or problems in the justice system pose a problem or gives one second thoughts.

      I don't think there will ever be a compromise on the debate regarding this issue. This is such an interesting and fascinating debate. Take for example the argument of it being about revenge or even righteous retribution. I can see it in another way such as a society or community's response in defense of itself, to protect itself. Another argument is between the right of the individual and of the State if it has a right to take that individual's life as punishment. In some cultures, the welfare of the community or of the collective comes before the right of the individual. These nuances I believe sometimes play into the debate.

    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 7 years ago from Australia

      @Amy B ~ That is really tragic! Like you, it enrages me also. I am of two minds whether I could be the one to "pull the lever". I think a certain detachment must be present in the one doing so, an acknowledgement that their job isn't a personal thing, neither is it of their choosing, they are simply the final cog in the many gears of justice, they bare no blame. So sad when elderly people get attacked by the young; as you say, cowardly is the best word to describe it. Thanks for commenting.

    • Amy Becherer profile image

      Amy Becherer 7 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      I can only speak for myself in that I could not pull the lever or give a lethal injection. In fact, I don't think I could intentionally kill someone trying to harm me. Of course, that is a scenario that I hope I never encounter. When I saw the news about the 72 years old man and his wife, walking home from the market in broad daylight a couple of streets away from my apt., that were attacked by 4 teenagers, I was enraged. Someone was close enough to videotape them, but did not intervene. I would have intervened, come what may. As it happened, a car going by sent the bunch of cowards running. The man died and his wife spent several days in the hospital whereupon she went home alone to plan her husbands funeral.

    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 7 years ago from Australia

      @ Amy B ~ I think we all have a secret fear of being falsely accused and convicted. Unfortunately this can occur regardless of the penalty, and some question whether we should base justices measure of punishment on the premise of getting it wrong rather than what fits the crime. We must also remember that the same God who said, "You shall not murder" [Deuteronomy 5:17] also stipulated the death penalty for certain crimes. Human fallibility aside, maybe some crimes do warrant death. Thanks for commenting.

    • Amy Becherer profile image

      Amy Becherer 7 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      I am not an organized religion advocate, although and maybe because, I was raised and taught in Catholic schools. However, one thing I know without any question is the fallibility of man. I have seen too many cases of someone on death road, who has already given 25 years of their live in a jail cell, and found through DNA to be innocent. Aside from the mistakes that have cost some innocents their youth, I do believe that God is the creator and taker of life and it is my opinion that it is not our place to make those decisions...we aren't equipped as we've proven time and again with errors in judgement. One of the commandments reads "Thou shalt not kill". It does not stipulate exceptions.

    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 7 years ago from Australia

      @RTalloni ~ Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree there is rebellion, as has been since Eden; however I also think there is genuine confusion –including the various biblical perspectives- as to how the “most” rebellious should be punished. What is the most important consideration, justice or Mercy? Does having a death sentence really contribute to making a better society, or should we be addressing other issues as priority?

      Maybe on this issue there is not a definitive answer. Sin, as you alluded, has muddied things horribly. Appreciated your comments.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 7 years ago from the short journey

      It's good to look at both sides of any issue and examine the difficulties as well as the positives so there can be mature dialogue. Even one mistake in this arena is too many, and that's the proverbial understatement of the year.

      However, rebellion against the death penalty is not so much about stopping crime but more about ordering society in a way other than the way the Bible says. That's why we have groups wanting to reword the BIble, that why many behaviors that used to be a crime are now accepted behaviors, that's why crime has escalated to the proportions that we see today, that's what the root of "our problem" is. The blinding effect of rebellion to God has society on a downward spiral that inhibits any ability to find solutions to societal ills.

    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 7 years ago from Australia

      @feenix ~ thanks for stopping by to read and comment. I think this is why the subject of capital punishment raises such debate; people have differing understandings of things such as punishment, retribution, justice and righteousness.

    • feenix profile image

      feenix 7 years ago

      parrster, this a thought-provoking hub, very thought-provoking. Personally, I believe that there should be a death penalty. And in my opinion, not only is the death penalty a form of punishment, it is what I call righteous retribution.

    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 7 years ago from Australia

      @morducai ~ thanks for the thoughtful comment; a lot of things to consider in there. In the example of the adulteress, I wonder if Jesus' actions were as much in response to hypocrisy as they were about mercy (after all, the death penalty was a command in scripture). I do question whether the death penalty is purely about revenge. Cannot it not also be about justice? The bible teaches that we all stand condemned, worthy of death? However it also teaches that God's mercy, though extended to all, is benefited only by the repentant. Consider then that the prospect of eminent death can bring a sinner to repentance (e.g. thief on the cross). I have read several accounts of those who have found Christ while on death row, an event unlikely to have occurred within a rehabilitation scenario. Thanks for the food for thought.

    • profile image

      morducai 7 years ago

      I find it worrying as a christian that so many American Christians are retentionists and argue that its the law of the land or God has said it's the punishment in the Bible. If you do then you haven't read about the adulteress Matt 7:53-8:11. If you as a Christian argue for the death penalty, what would you say about Paul? He killed people before his conversion and the Christians forgave him almost immediately. How could that be if we should be pro death penalty? Then you also have the trouble of all does other punishments for different crimes in the old testament? Jesus said that if you divorce and remarry you have committed adultery, should all remarried divorcies with new husbands be put to death as well? No, Jesus preached mercy and so should we

      Then to does of you that argue that we shall follow the rules in the country. Rom 13:1-4 is about not being a weight on society. Christians were lawbreakers from the beginning it was a criminal offense to even be Christian for which was often given the death penalty for. If you interpret Rom 13:1-4 like for example SBC have done you effectively say that you can't resist the authority. Should we not have resisted the Nazis when they killed Jews, Catholics, Romanis, Homosexuals etc? Of course we should resist laws that are merciless, Jesus did and so should we.

      We are here on earth to be the light of the world not the darkness and when we see things that goes against Jesus principles we should stand up and be a counteracting force. What use does the capital punishment have for other then revenge? People can be locked in if they are a danger to society but even better many can be helped and as long as we Christian pushes rehabilitation for criminals instead of condemnation we will be the light in the world in this area.



    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 7 years ago from Australia

      @Adela Rasta ~ Thanks for commenting Adela. I suspect your view is held by many. The bible does also speak of God using the powers-that-be for his purposes.

    • Adela Rasta profile image

      Adela Rasta 7 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Justice is in the hands of God to avenge himself then. It is not up to us to take matters into our own hands. "Thou shalt not kill." Government-sanctioned killing is still death, and it's wrong.

      Good, informative hub :)

    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 7 years ago from Australia

      Thanks for commenting aguasilver. Maybe you can elaborate on your reasoning to arrive at such a conclusion in a hub some time. Appreciate you stopping by

    • aguasilver profile image

      John Harper 7 years ago from Malaga, Spain

      My thoughts are simple.

      God requires the death penalty for murder.

      As a society we can disobey God and suffer the consequences, but for every drop of innocent blood that is spilled without justice for the victim, by retribution to the murderer, a curse will fall on the land... ergo with the abolition of the death penalty our lands suffer.

      Good hub.

      You really do write with concise precision, thanks.


    • MFB III profile image

      MFB III 8 years ago from United States

      A thorough DNA check, to match evidence found at the scene,

      there usually is, is proof positive, with a 98.99% accuracy...and the other tiny percentage would at least offer some evidence of connection. Once DNA has been established offer all those convicted of murder a trip to the Pakastani-Afghanistan border, to practice their skills on terrorists, let them use thier talents for righteous killing. Imagine battalions of Killers let loose in those caves and mountains hunting bin Laden and his gang of sleazeballs, each wearing a satelite chip so that they go nowhere else. Their sentence would be to kill and kill again, in the name of their countries, and if they happen to kill each other.... well then that victims sentence is served, otherwise they spend their lives free, but fighting to stay alive, much like thier victims did when they were free citizens who were butchered. If they refuse to go, then put them to sleep, gently like dogs, because they are less then dogs. They lose all right to be considered human when they kill humans. We have the technology to make thier exit painless, we just legistate execution to death. I do not beleive in mercy for killers, this plan is as close as I can get. ~~~MFB III


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