Should violent criminals in our ravaged society be hanged by the neck to pay for their crimes?
For some‚ this is justice.
For others‚ it’s an act of barbarism that simply reinforces the violence in a society.
And still for others‚ it is a hideous ghost from the gallows of apartheid where people were hanged simply for their political affiliation.
It is not a comfortable question‚ but one which sits on the lips of many South Africans outraged by how murder‚ rape‚ gang rape and violent assault have become a norm in society.
Now‚ the Institute for Race Relations has just released a report that says four of the five main arguments against capital punishment can be debated without conclusion — but it is the “possibility of error” that really cements capital punishment as a “no go” area.
IRR security analyst Kerwin Lebone said: “Almost 500‚000 people have been murdered by violent criminals since 1994. Many more have been maimed‚ otherwise injured‚ or traumatised. It must be expected that the society might ask questions of the wisdom of having abandoned the death penalty.”
In its research‚ the IRR tested five objections to the death penalty: That it is cruel and unusual‚ that it is a form of retribution‚ that it is arbitrary‚ that the penalty is not a deterrent to crime‚ and that an irreversible error can be made.
According to a statement released by the IRR‚ it was “able to overcome the first four objections. It found that the death penalty is not necessarily cruel and unusual. Society is entitled to a measure of retribution. The arbitrariness is not unique to that form of punishment. The international evidence is mixed but‚ in South Africa’s unique circumstances‚ the death penalty could well be a deterrent to the commission of the most cruel and violent of crimes.”
But‚ the IRR found that “the most compelling argument against the punishment was the possibility of error” – particularly in the case of the South African criminal justice system. The IRR said that‚ while a case could be made to reopen a debate into the death penalty‚ this debate would have to overcome the fifth objection to that penalty.
Barend van Niekerk‚ a fervent death penalty abolitionist‚ said in 1967 that “47% of the executions in the world were carried out in South Africa“.
According to the IRR‚ it is a figure that was “questioned but never refuted“.
Up until 1989‚ when executions were stopped in SA‚ around 4‚000 had been capitally punished in the country in the 80 preceding years.
Today‚ “technological advances (like DNA testing)” could reduce the risk of error‚ as could “better police and prosecutorial procedures“.
However‚ even if all precautions were taken‚ “the risk of error might be lessened but could never be completely avoided“.
In conclusion‚ the IRR said that British politician Gerald Gardiner had summed up in 1964 a principle which still sticks: “Human beings who are not infallible ought not to choose a form of punishment which is irreparable.”
Tiso Black Star Group Digital/Cape Newsroom