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Is capital punishment really a punishment?

Mercy plea: Australian drug smugglers Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan are escorted by an Indonesian policeman to a court trial in Denpasar, Bali on February 16, 2006. Photo: AAP

Waiting in hope: Australian Bali Nine duo Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran are awiting execution for drug smuggling. Photo: AAP

By Fr Nicholas Okafor

THE case of the Australian Bali Nine duo Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran has resonated fundamental questions in the consciousness of many; is capital punishment worth being called a punishment?

Is it not against human dignity?

Can the extent of rehabilitation Andrew and Myuran demonstrated in Kerokoban prison question the position of those countries that still hold very tenaciously that capital punishment is the only alternative in crimes of extreme gravity?

Catholic Church’s teaching on capital punishment

Fr Nicholas Okafor

Fr Nicholas Okafor

Catholic social teaching which informs the position of the Catholic Church on death penalty is primarily based on the fundamental truth about human life: human life is both sacred and social. The sacredness of the human life primarily arises from the fact that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26).

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God … God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstances claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being” (CCC n 2258).

Secondly, life is a gift to humanity from God. Consequently, life solely belongs to God; we are only custodians of life given to us by God who is the one and only giver of life. Being custodians of life, we have the duty to protect and foster it until natural death occurs.

The social aspects of the human life necessitates that the society should protect and foster life as well. The State enacts laws that help her to achieve this mandate.

Anyone who violates these laws is sanctioned. Punishment obviously compels the citizens of a State as well as aliens to respect and observe these laws but when punishment goes beyond corrective and rehabilitative boundaries it becomes questionable.

When a State or an individual takes away life without exhausting every possible means of preserving it, the individual or the State takes the role of God on whose domain of authority the human life absolutely dwells.

However, the Church does not completely deny the State the right of capital punishment. On this CCC n 2267 states “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to death penalty, if it is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

No doubt the State has the right to inflict capital punishment on those who are guilty of extremely serious crimes.

Nevertheless, in this day and age; must the State operate on the realm of capital punishment to protect the lives and properties of her citizens?

Pope John Paul II answered this question in negation when he said “Today however, as result of steady improvements in the organisation of penal system”, situations that warrant the infliction of capital punishment on offenders “are very rare, if not practically none-existent” (Evangelium vitae n 56).

“Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform” (Evangelium Vitae, 27).

Pope Francis reaffirmed this stand when in his audience with delegates from the International Association of Penal Law he stressed “It is impossible to imagine that today (there are) states who cannot make use of means other than capital punishment to defend the life of other persons from unjust aggressors.”

Like Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in his consistent ethic of life argued “the current discussion is not whether the State still has the right to inflict capital punishment, but whether it should exercise this right. In the present circumstances, are there sufficient reasons to justify the infliction of the evil of death on another human person?”

Arguments against capital punishment

The traditional arguments justifying capital punishment (reform or rehabilitation, deterrence and retribution) no longer apply in our time rather the arguments of the opponents of capital punishment tend to be far more compelling than that of the exponents.

Imprisonment for life or a term of years is more likely to yield a better result in the society more than capital punishment.

The United States Catholic Bishops’ Statement on Capital Punishment of 1980 countered the three traditional reasons for capital punishment.

The argue that “Reform or rehabilitation of the criminal cannot serve as a justification for capital punishment, which necessarily deprives the criminal of the opportunity to develop a new way of life that conforms to the norms of society and that contributes to the common good.”

What this means is since there is no life or repentance in the grave, using capital punishment as a means of reform on the side of the victim is baseless and worthless. As the famous South African Judge, Justice Ismail Mahomed argues, capital punishment due to it’s “inherently irreversible consequences, makes any reparation or correction impossible. It permits no rehabilitation, no reform, and no repentance.” It makes no room for second chance, it has no place for forgiveness and it sees the offender as beyond rehabilitation.

On deterrence, US Bishops argue that “….While it is certain that capital punishment prevents the individual from committing further crimes, it is far from certain that it actually prevents others from doing so. Empirical studies in this area have not given conclusive evidence that would justify the imposition of the death penalty on a few individuals as a means of preventing others from committing crimes.”

Amnesty International joining its voice with that of the US Bishops said “capital punishment doesn’t deter criminals. In fact, evidence startlingly reveals the opposite. Twenty seven years after abolishing the death penalty, Canada saw a 44 per cent drop in murders across the country.”

Australia which abolished capital punishment for all offenses in 1985 shows lower statistic than those countries who are advocates of it in the crimes that attract capital punishment.

Andrew Byrnes raised a very important question as regards the deterrence factor for capital punishment: “Here the critical question is not whether the death penalty has some deterrent effect, but whether it has a unique deterrent effect, compared with other sanctions such as imprisonment for life or a term of years.”

The retributive reason for capital punishment does not make it right.

In his address for the launch of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council Series Paper No 61 Confronting the Death Penalty: People, Politics and Principle, Archbishop John Bathersby argued that “death penalty is an affront to human dignity and contributes to a culture of vengeance and death.”

Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge recently described capital punishment as “no more than judicial murder.”

In his own view, Dr Michael Costigan joins the legion of the opponents of retributive reason for capital punishment when he asserts “It diminishes those who bring it about or advocate it. By responding to killing by killing, we are not only adopting a position that defies logic, we are helping to foster a mentality whereby lethal and violent solutions can be more readily chosen in other situations…. But nothing is achieved by reprisal or payback mentality.” When the State pays back murder for murder, it reduces and places itself to the level of the murderer whom it tries to punish.

The other argument against capital punishment is that there is no ‘humane’ way to kill.

Research has proved that the so-called humane lethal injection, takes about 34 minutes and required two doses.

Shooting sometimes takes up to six minutes if the target was achieved, if not, a second or third shooting might occur. Electrocution and beheading are not better options either.

All these methods of execution increase the pain and trauma of both the criminal and the family members. If they die by hanging or shooting, they will be tormented by excruciating pain until they breathe their last.

None of these methods of execution will be instant and the condemned will have enough time to feel all of this happening.

The nature of these deaths only continues to perpetuate the cycle of violence and does not alleviate the pain already suffered by the victims’ family.

Capital punishment is no respecter of the sacredness of human life; it is inhumanity of human to human. Thus, capital punishment no matter how one approaches it is barbaric, cruel and inhuman; it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good!

Contributing their voice to the need to abolish capital punishment in all countries of the world the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference concisely offered these nine reasons:

The death penalty is an offence against the dignity and sanctity of all human life, which must be respected even in those who have done great evil. Every human being has the right to life.

The use of the death penalty undermines a society’s respect for life and contributes to a culture of vengeance and death.

The use of the death penalty is incompatible with the message and practice of Jesus Christ who preached forgiveness rather than upholding the law of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.

The death penalty is cruel and unnecessary. All societies now have other ways of protecting themselves from violent criminals.

The death penalty denies those who have committed crimes the chance to repent and reform.

The death penalty does not appear to have reduced crime rates in those States where it is applied.

It is illogical and ineffective to oppose killing by means of State killings.

No criminal justice system is infallible and there is always the danger that the innocent may be put to death.

In many countries the death penalty is applied in a way that discriminates against the poor, marginalised, disadvantaged and members of minority ethnic groups.

In recent times when some politicians and political parties in Australia are calling for reintroduction of capital punishment, the Catholic bishops of Australia have reaffirmed that they “would certainly oppose any move to reintroduce the death penalty in this country.”

Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran’s a case study of the ills of capital punishment.

In the case of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, we have heard how they have been genuinely and effectively rehabilitated in the prison.

They have become role models to other prison inmates.

The AIM Network described Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan as “paragons of what the penal system aspires to be, of what it should be – a place of rehabilitation and reform, a place of healing…where those who have wronged society can turn their path and become better people. That their debt to society can be repaid by becoming better members of it. This lofty aim has been achieved in Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran”.

The prison officials have also authenticated the above claim.

They described Andrew and Myuran as model inmates; they have been mentors to other inmates.

“Andrew holds courses and takes classes, helping other inmates improve themselves. He leads the prison church services for English speakers and offers spiritual succor to the inmates there.”

Myuran Sukumaran completed and was awarded Associate Degree in Fine Arts from Curtin University while in prison.

“He has discovered art and spends his free time painting self-portraits. He also teaches English, computer, graphic design and philosophy classes to inmates so that prisoners might develop skills that would help them become better members of society when released” the prison officers affirm.

Testifying to this further, Dr Clarke Jones a researcher on prison radicalisation and reform, and James Giggacher the Asia-Pacific editor at The Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific argue that “Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran are shining examples of prison rehabilitation and should be displayed with pride by the Indonesian government, not shut down in history.

Their execution could potentially dampen other inmates’ enthusiasm to reform or change. In this case, as with many more, the death penalty is no silver bullet solution, and in fact hits terribly wide of the mark. One thing is for certain, if Chan and Sukumaran are executed, other drug offenders will be deterred from rehabilitation.”

The case of the Australian Bali pair: Andrew and Myuran has once more furnished the proponents of the total abolition of capital punishment in all countries of the world with more reasons why capital punishment should be outlawed.

It has opened our eyes more on the barbaric, cruel, inhuman and evil nature of this act. Andrew and Myuran’s situation is good evidence that the case against capital punishment has reasons to dislodge those of the proponents.

It is a powerful and genuine reference point when arguing against death penalty.

Moreover, our time with the improvement in science and technology sees it as outdated and uncalled-for. We hope that Andrew and Myuran’s case will make the voice of the abolition of capital punishment louder to the extent that countries that still practice it will give a due reconsideration to this act that works against the principle of human dignity, the value of life, the importance of forgiveness, mercy and compassion and the reformation and rehabilitation of criminals.

Fr Nicholas Okafor is the associate pastor of Surfers Paradise Parish.

Written by: Guest Contributor
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