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Past and the present of Capital Punishment: Differences in evolution

Past and the present of Capital Punishment: Differences in evolution

By Srishti Kalra

A tale of two continents

When European settlers migrated to the New World Colonies from Virginia to Massachusetts, they brought with them severe forms of corporal and capital punishments as principles of the English Common Law. Ironically, today, all of Western Europe, either by law or by practice, has abolished the death penalty. In 1962, it was reported to the Council of Europe that “the facts clearly show that the death penalty is regarded in Europe as something of an anachronism”.

With the death penalty being legal in 31 states, the United Sates is the only developed nation that is still debating over the interpretation of the 8th and the 14th Amendment, intended to preserve the dignity of a man by prohibiting “cruel and unusual punishments”. During the 1989 extradition proceedings of Jens Soering, a German citizen arrested in England and charged with committing murder in America, the European Court of Human Rights agreed that extraditing Soering would violate protections against “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”, as in the United States, the condemned prisoner undergoes a psychological illness termed as the Death Row Syndrome.

Problems in the South: Whether aggravation is called for

Southern states constitute 80% of the country’s executions. The recent turn of events will only aggravate the agony. Following the Southern states in revamping execution methods, Oklahoma has reintroduced the gas chamber, Utah has come back with the firing squad, and Tennessee has reintroduced the electric chair.

Capital punishment

In 2003, an average of two condemned inmates each month were strapped onto a gurney and injected with three lethal drugs in in the Death Chamber at the Walls in Huntsville, Texas. | Source: BoredLion

Mississippi Legislator Andy Gipson introduced House Bill 638. It proposes adding firing squad, electrocution, and gas chamber to the list of approved execution methods in Mississippi. These would replace the current lethal injections. Mississippi has a history of barbaric capital punishment methods which include public hanging (1804-1940), mobile electric chair (1940-52), and gas chambers (1954-1989).

In an era where the ‘standards of decency’ are evolving, using these methods for execution would raise several legal and ethical concerns. 

These ‘standards of decency’ indicate how much the society has progressed collectively.

Manufacturers hesitating in using their drugs for execution proves that only a minority would favour the death penalty.

This bill is a response to the dearth in the supply of lethal doses, and the pending execution of 47 inmates. The European Commission banned the export of Pentobarbital, used for anesthetics in the legal drug, from the Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck in 2011. American pharmaceutical company Hospira also refused to sell sodium thiopental to correction facilities. Manufacturers hesitating in using their drugs for execution proves that only a minority would favour the death penalty. This number would reduce further if offered alternatives like life sentence without parole and restitution.

The legal complications include the recently filed lawsuits contending the violation of the 8th Amendment. There is a need for the state to implement procedures in order to reduce the risk of tortures.

Putting humanity to shame: No less than criminals

Witnessing other modes of inflicting the death penalty has left the observers horrified and disgusted. This explains the opposition of prison wardens to capital punishment. The execution of John Evans took fourteen minutes after three charges of electricity burned his flesh. Smoke was emanating from his leg and head while his heart was still beating. Similarly, Tom Harding’s body convulsed violently for ten minutes in a gas chamber before he died. Sociologist Richard Moran wrote that he was ashamed after witnessing an execution in Texas in 1985.

All pain, no gain: Capital punishment ineffective

Over the years, several objections have been raised against capital punishments. These point out that capital punishment is an ineffective deterrent to reduce homicide. Its irrevocable nature, the racial bias in death sentencing and higher litigation costs are other reasons for its ineffectiveness.

Capital punishment

The severity of punishment should not surpass the limits of human dignity. | Source: The Abolition Action Committee

Mississippi passed the bill on Wednesday for more inhumane modes to provide ‘justice’ to those deceased. Repealing the death penalty seems a thought too far. Making the punishment fit for the crime invokes constitutional guarantee of equal protection. The severity of punishment, as dependent as it is on the gravity of the crime, should not surpass the limits of human dignity.


Featured Image Credits: Amnesty
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