Gary Conway recently wrote an interesting piece about the moral case for capital punishment, and gives a lot of statistics about repeat murderers and the like. It is all very well wailing about the “human rights” of convicted murders, but nobody seems to worry too much about the “human rights” of the murder victims. These days, it seems that the victims of crime are treated like dog pooh on the carpet, to be swept up and sanitised as quickly as possible, and then not talked about. This situation needs to change. The following is an expanded policy suggestion that I wrote some years ago, laying out the nuts and bolts of a system for capital punishment that might be appropriate for this day and age. No system is ever going to be perfect, but the alternative is no system at all.
One thing that must always be remembered when the subject of capital punishment is raised is that the victim is always dead, and is dead forever. There is no appeal, or time off for good behavior, for the victim. The offence of murder can cover a large spectrum of offences. It may range from an abused spouse killing her violent partner out of desperation, to a paedophile torturing a child to death for sadistic pleasure. Clearly, one case deserves mercy and understanding, and the other deserves the most severe sanction possible. The “one size fits all” current sentence of life imprisonment takes no account of this, and should be amended accordingly. The punishment should fit the actual crime, and some cases of murder richly deserve the death penalty.
This will always be an emotive subject, and any attempt to re-introduce capital punishment must be the subject of a referendum, requiring a significant majority in favour. The old system of the judge deciding on his own is no longer suitable, and we must present a more appropriate system for this day and age to the public for their approval or not. There will always be a large contingent of whining do-gooders who will oppose capital punishment in any form, which is why the approval of a referendum is needed.
The system I envisage would work like this: the murder trial would proceed normally, as at present, with the sentence of life imprisonment the maximum possible that can be awarded after conviction on the evidence presented that is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. The judge, as the legal expert can then, if he is contemplating a death sentence, review the evidence and decide if it meets a more stringent condition of ‘beyond any possible doubt’.
The senior judiciary of the appellate courts should be the ones who actually decide the precise criteria for the presented evidence to be considered ‘beyond any possible doubt’, and Appeal Court judges should keep this criteria under constant review as various cases go through the courts.
In order for the judge to impose a death sentence, the evidence presented must meet the criteria of ‘beyond any possible doubt’. If the judge then decides that this criteria has been met, and believes that he should impose a death sentence, he must then ask the jury if they agree that the evidence meets the ‘beyond any possible doubt’ criteria, and they should indicate their decision by a secret ballot. Before a death sentence can be imposed, the jurors must all agree that the evidence meets the criteria of ‘beyond any possible doubt’. If one or more jurors show disagreement by blackballing the ballot, then the death sentence cannot be imposed, and a life sentence is the maximum that can be imposed. If the jury agrees with the judge, and a death sentence is imposed, all the normal avenues of appeal will still be available to the convicted person.
This scheme may seem a bit involved, but before we decide to take somebody’s life we must be sure that they deserve to lose it. By involving the jury, it allows provision for a juror who is a bit queasy about the death penalty to prevent it, yet still convict someone who deserves to be convicted. If the jury were not involved in the decision, there exists the possibility that a juror might vote to acquit a murderer if he did not agree with a possible death sentence, and had no other means of preventing it. This system would probably not result in many actual executions, but that is not the purpose of capital punishment. The possibility of capital punishment is there to try and deter people from becoming murderers in the first place.