The death toll

Earlier this year Amnesty International issued a report setting out the data on executions worldwide carried out in the criminal process. In 2008 a total of 2,390 people were executed, overwhelmingly in Asia. During the same year, 8,864 people were sentenced to death.

Currently 59 countries still have the death penalty, but only 25 of these actually executed anyone last year. In fact, executions are only part of the problem. Often those sentenced to death then spend considerable periods of time in prison – ‘death row’, as it is often called – in hugely stressful conditions. The fact that from time to time some of them are released, with indications of a mistrial, underscores the ethical hazards of the system. Sometimes we hear that people, including people in positions of authority, are willing to take this kind of risk. The noted English judge Lord Denning said in the 1990s:

‘We shouldn’t have all these campaigns to get the Birmingham Six released if they’d been hanged. They’d have been forgotten and the whole community would have been satisfied.’

It is worth bearing in mind that the Birmingham Six were indeed released, with overwhelming evidence of their innocence.

Even in circumstances as extreme as the Nuremberg trials there appear to have been miscarriages of justice. Nazi German General Alfred Jodl was executed on 16 October 1946 for war crimes, but 7 years later he was posthumously acquitted.

Against this backdrop we should be very wary of the reported comments by the retired President of the Irish High Court,  Mr Justice Richard Johnson, that the death penalty should be ‘revisited’. He suggested that the government should look at its reintroduction, and that the people should be asked (by referendum), and ‘if the people want it they should have it.’

This is one of those situations where it is far from clear that the people should have what they want, assuming that they do indeed want it. The death penalty on the whole these days is considered for murder, but very many homicides are crimes of passion rather than planning, and the death penalty would not in any sense be a deterrent. Furthermore, the costs of managing the system, maintaining those sentenced to death and carrying out the executions are prohibitive, so that even the cost argument doesn’t work. But most of all, criminal justice is not a science, and guilty verdicts are not necessarily secure. The idea that we may execute the innocent, however rarely, should be a conclusive argument against the death penalty.

I confess I would share the alarm of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties that this proposition has been raised again. Calls for the death penalty have the effect of coarsening society and unbalancing the relationship between punishment and justice. We would do better without this issue returning to public debate.

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10 Comments on “The death toll”

  1. Vincent Says:

    All this is is the continuation of a conversation normally reserved for the upper reserves of the judicial offices. For heavens sake you can almost hear the conversation. Best to leave the retort to Mr Justice Donal Barrington.

  2. kevin denny Says:

    Personally I think capital punishment is barbaric and also ineffective for the reasons you gave. It never ceases to amaze me how otherwise civilized societies go along with it. But if its not to be decided by the will of the people, then by who? Isn’t this the price of democracy?


    • I know, Kevin, that it is indeed a dilemma. But the whole concept of human rights is based around the idea that a majority of the people cannot decide on the removal of rights for the minority. Who decides? I don’t have a wholly satisfactory answer to that. But not a simple majority.

  3. Vincent Says:

    Inculcate is the word I’m searching, re the Jury and the post in general. In that the mindset has been pressed in. Why the Common Law. It is the cause of the executions/judicial murder, as it views people as lesser.

  4. oceanpout Says:

    I totally agree that the execution of Generaloberst Alfred Jodl was a miscarriage of justice. I live in the U.S., and I support execution for premeditated murderers. I don’t care what the intellectuals say, it is a deterrent. I was a police officer for 25 years. I know. And once executed, they won’t be eventually released to kill again, which happens quite often.


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