Posted tagged ‘Richard Johnson’

The death toll

November 17, 2009

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, ┬áMr 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.