In the first part of this duplex, I responded to Daz Pearce’s challenges about the death penalty in the first part of his article. Here I respond to the challenges Mr Pearce made in the second part of his article.
Mr Pearce disagrees with me on the nature of capital punishment. I argue that capital punishment is useful as a deterrent but not as a means of retribution. Mr Pearce says that many people are attracted to capital punishment because it satisfies their desire to exact revenge. The keen-eyed reader will observe a disparity between my premise and Mr Pearce’s.
What I am saying is that capital punishment has a measurable effect as a deterrent. Deterring crime is what capital punishment is best for. Just because some people would feel avenged by the hanging of a murderer (which is what discomfits Mr Pearce), it doesn’t follow that capital punishment is ineffective as a deterrent.
Let us pay special attention to Mr Pearce’s words on the feeling of being avenged some people may have: ”The retribution that they crave is not on behalf of the victim’s family, but for themselves and/or society as a whole.”
I am not sure how Mr Pearce knows that people who want capital punishment as a weapon of vengeance crave it for themselves and for society – but definitely not for the victim. I would call this a gross misjudgement of what – and whom – justice is for. The vengeful man in the street is a member of society which the justice system must be seen to protect. Hanging a murderer sends a warning to would-be murderers not to kill innocent members of society. Unhappily, it is probably the victim’s family for whom the justice system can do the least. The deterrent effect is no good to them and, as I insisted at length in my original text, unsatisfying as a form of retribution.
But whether the average citizen feels – or thinks he is – avenged by the hanging of a murderer, and enjoys the feeling of retribution is unimportant. It is Mr Average Citizen’s own business how he feels about it.
All of what I have said so far applies to feelings about retribution in response to capital punishment. I think Mr Pearce and I can agree that, once instituted, the individual’s emotional satisfaction by the hanging of a murderer is “after the fact” and irrelevant. Here, retribution is a mere by-product of deterrence.
But what if capital punishment were reintroduced on the basis of demagoguery? This is the the critical juncture of the debate. Let us examine what Mr Pearce has to say:
“By retribution, I am referring to the instinctive reaction that many decent people have upon hearing of a particularly horrific murder. For instance, Harold Shipman was a man whose crimes against vulnerable patients in his care were met with many a call to ‘hang the bastard’ or issue some other form of ultimate penalty. This isn’t necessarily the thinking of ‘a rabble’ or ‘hotheads’, but of individuals who would not normally be considered unreasonable by nature.”
Can we be sure that, upon exposure to the gruesome details of a murder, that those who call for the hanging of the perpetrator are “unreasonable”? Yes, such people may be reacting viscerally without much thought. But it is also possible that such people are also thinking about crime and punishment with greater clarity and conviction when confronted by the horror of a crime. Can we not suppose that our sanguinity when we are unaffected by crime is also unreasonable? A person’s ardour for the death penalty could cool if he went a year without hearing of any gruesome murders on the news. After a year of not encountering any gruesome murders on the news, he may become complacent and even conclude that the death penalty is unnecessary. Maybe his detachment makes him unreasonable.
But what makes Mr Pearce think that the following is the case “[Those] who have an emotional stake in any situation are not usually the best placed to judge how it should ultimately be dealt with”?
Do these unreasonable, emotional knee-jerkers and tear-jerkers really have any say in the law-making process of this country? If they did, then capital punishment would have been reintroduced a long time ago. It might never have been abolished. But the governments of the past fifty years have done what they want irrespective of popular opinion.
Besides, support for the death-penalty is consistently above 50%. When there is a gruesome murder support for the death penalty spikes. So, even if we were to discount “unreasonable” support for the death penalty, more than half of voters remain in favour of capital punishment.
As for the injustice suffered by Stefan Kiszko, I don’t have much to add. Most of what can be said about miscarriages of justice have been stated in Part I. Miscarriages of justices can be minimised, never eradicated. I know some people say they could countenance the death penalty if there was a 100% guarantee the wrong man would not be executed. I call this the Portillo Formulation. It is a pretty useless and dreamy way of thinking: We could only do X if the world was perfect.
Adherents of the Portillo Formulation will not be won over by my rationale for minimising miscarriages of justice (seeing as it is insufficient in their fabulous world) but the justice system could be improved by the re-moralising and re-educating of society. If our society had a definite moral system there would be fewer people in the justice process prepared to “bend” the law to the extent that an innocent man could hang. If our society was better educated, there would be fewer stupid people in the justice process to allow things to go wrong to the extent that an innocent man could hang. If people believed that their lies in court were being supervised by a higher authority, they would be less inclined to tell lies when their hand is placed on the Bible.
And if we had a better political class we would not have to fear the (nanny) state so much. The state that Mr Pearce is so fearful of is the one created by alternating Labour and Tory governments over a fifty year period. If you lot stopped voting for those old, useless parties we probably would have a better functioning state apparatus and a justice system in which we could have confidence.