The Death Penalty: Is It Moral for a State to Execute People?

Capital punishment means the execution of a man – practiced only by a state. In the case of non-state forms of organization it is considered murder. It comes as punishment for a specific type of crime, following a legal trial. It is usually used as severe punishment for murder, but in some countries, betrayal, certain types of fraud, adultery and rape are also punished through death penalty. The question whether it is moral or not for a state to execute people and, if it is moral, what the circumstances that should allow this practice are, has been debated for centuries.

Capital punishment is still practiced in many countries around the world, although in recent times international protests aimed at the abolition of the death penalty have begun to grow in intensity. According to an Amnesty International report for 2009, 58 countries and regions of the world maintain the death penalty, even though many of them no longer apply it in reality – in 35 states in which criminals can be sentenced to death, the sentence has not been applied for over ten years.

1,718, 346, 111, 102, 36

However, countries like China, Iran, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia continue to apply the death penalty even if it is not consistent with human rights, as recognized by the UN General Assembly since 1966. Concerning the subject, the media, citing Amnesty International, has explained that China executes the largest number of people annually and the figure was estimated at 1,718 in 2008, although the number could be much higher in reality. That same year, Iran executed at least 346 people, the U.S. 111, Saudi Arabia 102 and Pakistan 36.

On the other hand, according to the report, 95 countries worldwide have decided not to apply the death penalty even for the most serious crimes, a law valid both during peacetime and war. In nine countries, the death penalty can be applied only in case of war. In addition, on December 18th, 2008, the UN adopted the 63/168 resolution, which requires states to freeze executions and to consider abolishing the death penalty.

The U.S. situation

The_Death_PenaltyA study conducted in 2000 in a “perfect” legal system over an estimated period of 23 years, showed an error rate of 68% in capital punishment cases. Therefore, in seven out of 10 cases people would be wrongfully convicted. This would explain the large number of wrongfully convicted people exonerated after their death.

Capital punishment is used in 32 out of the 50 U.S. states. In fact, the most recent execution took place on October 15th, 2013. William Happ, aged 51, was executed in Florida by lethal injection, after being convicted of raping and murdering a 21-year-old woman in 1986. Here are some interesting facts about Happ’s execution:

  • William Happ was a volunteer, meaning an inmate who waived ordinary appeals that remained at the time of his execution
  • He was the first to be injected with the drug midazolam hydrochloride, despite concerns it might not work as promised or could inflict undue pain
  • Happ was pronounced dead 14 minutes after injection – double the amount of time it typically takes using the old formula

A 2010 Gallup poll showed that only 61% of Americans support this type of punishment, the lowest percentage since 1972 (in 1994, for example, 80 % of Americans were pro-death penalty).

The American case study provides another argument against the death penalty – the financial one: according to Amnesty International, it is two or three times more expensive for the U.S. to condemn a prisoner to death than to life imprisonment.

However, because the court procedures for challenging a death sentence are so long, prisoners often find themselves losing hope and will to fight for their lives, although they may have initially said they were unfairly punished. These are the so-called volunteers, as Willam Happ was, people who come to ask to be executed to get rid of all the hassle.