Execution is the lesser evil
EORGE Devenish’s letter “Why the death penalty isn’t the solution in South Africa” (The Star, November 13) requires a response – it is one-sided.
He says the most powerful argument in favour of it, is retribution. No, the most powerful argument in favour of the death penalty is saving the lives of law-abiding South Africans.
During the four years from 1984 to 1987 when the death penalty was in force, there were 37 891 murders and 537 executions. As a result of the negotiations, a moratorium was introduced by President De Klerk in February 1990. During the four years from 1991 to 1994 after the moratorium, there were 72 551 murders and obviously no executions.
Analysis shows: With the death penalty in place, there was an annual average of 9 473 murders and 134 executions; without the penalty, there was an average of 18 138 murders a year. That’s an increase of 8 665 murders a year. The number of murders increased by over 90 percent as a result of the
Gabolition of the death penalty.
This means over the 24 years since it was abolished, we have exchanged the deaths of about 3 432 convicted murderers for those of about 207 960 law-abiding citizens. That seems a high price to pay for a perceived moral high ground especially if you believe lives do indeed have any value.
According to the constitu- tion, all South Africans are equal, but death penalty abolitionists seem to believe the life of one convicted murderer is more precious than the lives of law- abiding citizens.
Let’s consider Devenish’s contention that there’s no conclusive evidence that it’s more of a deterrent than life imprisonment – that’s demolished by the figures above.
Second, that the death penalty is an irrevocable punishment is what makes it a powerful deterrent. Since legal systems are run by humans, they are subject to error. But since it is literally a life and death issue, there is vastly improved forensic evidence available; and since judgments are subject to appeal, the chances of a mistake are remote. Daily hundreds die from errors of judgment in industrial, domestic, recreational and traffic accidents and lifestyle choices. These deaths are accepted with equanimity.
Third, what’s barbaric about a lethal injection when thousands of people choose to die that way?
Fourth, that there is invari- ably a racial bias in imposing the penalty is itself a biased view. In a society that claims equality, all people must be treated equally. If that means offending one race, so be it.
Fifth, that the death penalty is an arbitrary punishment since it is not imposed consistently is not only a generalisation, since no law is ever applied with mechanical consistency, it’s incorrect, because the outcome is always open to avenues of appeal.
Finally, we have the claim that the death penalty is morally, philosophically and theologically questionable. I am not sure to what extent the abstract views of philosophers and theologians are relevant to a situation as complex and troubled as South Africa today.
Some may regard the death penalty as abhorrent, but much more so are the actions of heavily armed, anarchistic criminals on their way, with the help of corrupt cops, to achieving critical mass in a nearly defenceless society.