Why the death penalty isn’t the so­lu­tion in SA

The Star Early Edition - - LETTERS -

THE UN­AC­CEPT­ABLY high in­ci­dence of vi­o­lent crime has re­sulted in vo­cif­er­ous de­mands for the re­in­state­ment of the death penalty.

Some re­gard this penalty as a magic wand that will re­solve the very se­ri­ous prob­lems we are con­fronted with in relation to the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem in deal­ing with ram­pant vi­o­lence.

Fur­ther­more, opin­ion polls sug­gest sig­nif­i­cant support for the penalty’s re­in­state­ment.

There are co­gent ar­gu­ments for and against it.

The ar­gu­ments against the death penalty are:

There is no con­clu­sive ev­i­dence that it is more of a de­ter­rent than life im­pris­on­ment. Charles Dick­ens, the fa­mous 19th-cen­tury nov­el­ist, claimed rob­bery was not in­fre­quently com­mit­ted in the shadow of the scaffold.

The death penalty is an ir­re­vo­ca­ble pun­ish­ment. In the US, there are about 12 recorded cases in which peo­ple who were ex­e­cuted were sub­se­quently found in­no­cent. The most no­to­ri­ous English case is that of Ti­mothy Evans, hanged for a crime com­mit­ted by mass sex mur­derer, John Christie.

The death penalty is a bar­baric pun­ish­ment that de­praves all who are in­volved.

In het­ero­ge­neous coun­tries like South Africa and the US, it has been es­tab­lished that there is in­vari­ably a racial bias in the im­po­si­tion of the death penalty.

It is an ar­bi­trary pun­ish­ment since it is not im­posed con­sis­tently. It de­pends, in­ter alia, on the judge’s dis­po­si­tion to the death penalty and the qual­ity of the de­fence avail­able.

The death penalty is morally, philo­soph­i­cally and the­o­log­i­cally ques­tion­able. The great philoso­phers and the­olo­gians of the con­tem­po­rary world have pro­found reser­va­tions about its ap­pli­ca­tion. Em­i­nent thinkers like Di­et­rich Bon­ho­ef­fer, Karl Barth and Arch­bishop Wil­liam Tem­ple were op­posed to it.

The most pow­er­ful ar­gu­ment in favour of the ul­ti­mate penalty is that of ret­ri­bu­tion. When un­speak­able crimes are com­mit­ted, so­ci­ety de­mands ret­ri­bu­tion and this can be sat­is­fied only by pro­po­nents of the death penalty with the ul­ti­mate pun­ish­ment.

Lord Den­ning, one of the great­est judges of the 20th cen­tury, premised his support for this pun­ish­ment on ret­ri­bu­tion.

But how­ever great the de­mand for ret­ri­bu­tion may be, it is my sub­mis­sion that it is out­weighed by the six ar­gu­ments set out above.

The apartheid gov­ern­ment used the death penalty as a co­gent weapon in its sup­pres­sion of free­dom fight­ers.

The Con­sti­tu­tional Court de­cided in the land­mark Mak­wanyane case that the death penalty is in­com­pat­i­ble with the cru­cial rights set out in the con­sti­tu­tion.

Most in­formed and per­cep­tive com­men­ta­tors are of the opin­ion that the re­in­state­ment of the death penalty would not in­stan­ta­neously or, even over a pe­riod of time, re­solve the se­ri­ous crime prob­lem.

What is re­quired is a more ef­fec­tive, bet­ter re­sourced crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and a po­lice force that is com­pe­tent and not cor­rupt.

What is also nec­es­sary is the so­cio-eco­nomic up­lift­ment of mil­lions of peo­ple who are poor, un­em­ployed and live in appalling con­di­tions.

Ac­cord­ing to the South African Survey (2010-11), 36.5 per­cent of our pop­u­la­tion are un­em­ployed.

Grind­ing poverty and peo­ple who eke out an ex­is­tence in the in­for­mal set­tle­ments are the metaphor­i­cal breed­ing grounds for vi­o­lent crime.

In ef­fect, the call for the re­in­state­ment of the death penalty is a red her­ring.

The real prob­lems must be tack­led if we are to rad­i­cally re­duce crime in our so­ci­ety.

George Devenish Emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor, Univer­sity of KwaZulu-Natal


THE OF­FENCE OF POVERTY: A man takes a break from re­build­ing his shack in Kya Sand. It was rav­aged by fire to­gether with 800 oth­ers. The writer says re­lent­less penury is the breed­ing ground for delin­quency and vi­o­lence.

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