On Capital Punishment

Last year around this time, triggered by an event organised to commemorate the execution of Afzal Guru, a raging debate on sedition, capital punishment and nationalism engulfed the whole of India. This year the death sentence given to Nirbhaya gangrape convicts is making headlines again. Given the gravity of the sentence and the complexity involved, capital punishment has been a contested topic for students of law and ethics. In the paragraphs below, a brief case against capital punishment would be made.

Punishment is usually given for one or more reasons to obtain deterrence, social security, character reformation and retribution.

In capital punishment, not much time is given for character reformation as the person is put to death in due course of time. However, in life imprisonment this is not the case.

There is a biblical reason why giving chance to a wrongdoer to repent and sort out the wrongdoing of his life is important. Humans live just once, and is to face judgement after that (Heb. 9:27). Sorting out the moral furniture of his heart will determine his fate beyond this earthly life. Since Jesus died for all and he invites all to come to him, it is doubtful if he would want a life to be cut short particularly when such a sentence would deprive a person the chance to repent and reconcile with his or her maker.

It is often argued that a quantum of punishment equivalent to the quantum of wrongdoing is required for justice to prevail. An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth – no more, no less. However, this is questionable for biblical viewpoint. The Spirit teaches his followers a different principle – do not pay back evil for evil (Rom 12:17). This is to mean that if someone has damaged an eye, do not go for his eye, and if someone has smashed your tooth, do not go for his tooth. Vengeance is for God to take, not us. Because we can be blinded by anger and hatred, our mode of paying back will not be just. Punishment to the wrongdoer for deterrence or social security is required, but the reason need not be to get even with the wrongdoer; it should not be to harm him for the harm he has done. Retribution is not the desirable response. Punishment to the wrongdoer equivalent to the quantum of wrongdoing is not quite the kind of equation that Paul underlines for the followers of Christ.

Capital punishment will perhaps deter criminal acts more than life imprisonment. But it is also true that countries with capital punishment does not necessarily have less crime that those countries that have abolished capital punishment.

The more petrifying reason and perhaps the strongest argument against capital punishment, however, is to learn that there has been past incidents where innocent ones have been wrongly sent to the gallows. Capital punishment is given only to serious and rarest of rare crimes. Yet, wrong judgements occur and innocent people have been hanged. Judicial systems that face pressure – political or workload – and have less efficient pattern are more likely to have pronounced unjust decisions. Since death sentence to an innocent person is a very serious wrongdoing, doing away with capital punishment altogether will reduce chances of sending an innocent one to the gallows.

As a society, India is yet to invest much of its time and money in moral education. It has been the fear for punishment that restrains the citizen not to do wrong. This has to change. Citizens need to develop a sense of obligation to do the right thing towards the other; or to develop the sense of respect, love or even common good that serves as the basis for being good; or to love humans as an expression of one’s love to God.

Jeremiah Duomai
Research Director at TRACI