The Case Against Lawful Barbarity: The Death Penalty Revisited

Addressing the crowds gathered in Saint Peter’s Square in February, Pope Francis delivered his strongest condemnation yet of the death penalty. He appealed “to the consciences of government leaders” and called on all Christians to follow “the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’, [which] has absolute value, and concerns both the innocent and the guilty.” Even criminals, the Pontiff declared, “maintain the inviolable right to life, the gift of God.”

No matter how noble his thoughts, nor how theologically sound his arguments may have been, at least one woman was having none of the Pope’s “loony lefty” approach to justice: Ann Widdecombe, formerly the Conservative MP for the constituency of Maidstone and The Weald in the United Kingdom.

Writing in The Guardian, she alleged that a nuanced application of the death penalty can actually save lives. For some heinous crimes, Widdecombe notes, “the state’s duty to use whatever force is necessary to mount a credible defence including, in extremis, killing.”


Widdecombe’s argument rests upon the failed idea that the death penalty deters crime. Leaning on statistics nearly 50 years out of date, she paints a bleak picture of Britain’s post-abolition murder rates. “In the five years immediately following the abolition of the death penalty,” she writes, “the capital murder rate had risen almost 125%.”

Widdecombe is referring to a speech given to the Commons in 1969 by Duncan Sandys, a senior Conservative MP and supporter of the death penalty. In a debate on the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act, Sandys peppered his commentary with alarming figures about the sudden rise in murders since abolition.

Though his numbers might be accurate, they do not present a holistic overview of criminality at the time. As John Lamperti, professor of mathematics at Dartmouth College, notes, the increase in murder in Great Britain was accompanied by “even greater increases in other violent crimes which were never subject to death sentences.” While the number of homicides might have increased, the rate of homicides remained stable, around one per 100,000 people.

Across the pond, however, statistics tell a different story. In the United States,* where capital punishment remains de rigueur in 31 states, the homicide rate is five times greater than Britain’s. And France’s. And Germany’s. And 40 other countries, 35 of which have abolished the death penalty. At some points in the 1980s, the U.S. homicide rate was 10 times that in Britain. Despite stats like these,  Widdecombe somehow expects us to believe the death penalty has an impact on criminality.

Truth be told, the death penalty ought to deter crime. Criminals ought to fear death. That at least is the logic Widdecombe shares with many in the pro-execution camp. Were it borne by evidence, this belief might someday become fact. As it happens, it is not and it will not. In the United States, “states [with] death penalty laws do not have lower crime rates or murder rates than states without such laws,” remarks the American Civil Liberties Union. If the death penalty discouraged criminals, countries like Iran and China would be crime-free utopias.

The only thing the death penalty is sure to contribute to is the death of innocent people. In a 2014 article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors conservatively estimate that at least four percent of people on death row in the United States have been falsely convicted. The actual numbers are—in all likelihood—much bleaker than that.

Taking an innocent life is a depraved barbarity for which people like Ann Widdecombe say death is the only reasonable response. Yet when it comes to an innocent person being executed for a crime they did not commit, Widdecombe’s lot are silent. Or they claim the death penalty would apply only to crimes where there was no question as to the murderer’s identity. In truth, a homicide case with 100 percent certainty is a rare specimen indeed.

Besides, with something as precious as human life, we cannot allow the justice system to be taken over by a cycle of violence and cheap fixes. The death penalty is too final a punishment for it to have a place in any society. In the United Kingdom, at least, thank goodness it will not be coming back anytime soon.

*I compare to the United States primarily because among countries practicing capital punishment, it is one of few for which reliable data on the death penalty can be found. Iran, China, North Korea, and other states are less forthcoming about this information, which itself is telling.

Image:  Prison. (Pixaby, Creative Commons)

Jean-Paul Honegger is a 2015 graduate of Bowdoin College, where he majored in Asian studies and history. He has previously written for The Independent and the UN’s Department of Public Information. He lives and works near Geneva, Switzerland.


Submit a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s