Reviewing the Death Penalty

By Christian Wolfer 

Recently, on Last Week Tonight, an HBO series that conducts investigative journalism in the United States, an episode took a critical look at the death penalty and its procedure. That inspired me to ask the people around me in Tokyo what they think about the death penalty in Japan, one of the last modern countries in the world to have it. I discuss some of the comments I heard below and share why I am against the death penalty.​

 The first and most important argument against the death penalty is that innocent people get killed through false judgment (in the US about 4%). In other words, the state, and by itsrepresentation of the people, you and me, become responsible for killing innocent people. If you are willing to accept this high price, the benefits must be considerably high. Yet what are those benefits? 

One argument I hear a lot is that it scares people off from committing crimes . However, this assumption stands on no data as to date there is no proof that the death penalty works as a deterrent. Furthermore, it gives a state too much power. Power that has been abused in the past and might easily be abused in the future in form of, for example, silencing oppositions. It is also systematic killing, and Germany’s WW2 story tragically shows to what scale this can lead. That is why in Germany, the first paragraph of the Basic Law says that “The dignity of men is unimpeachable”, thus making a death penalty impossible, an important security against such systematic killings occurring again. 

Another common argument is “For heavy crime, criminals should be punished.”. The state has the responsibility to lead as a role model. Killing people shows that not all human life is equal and that it is more important to punish the guilty than to protect the innocent. In Japan, the conditions of someone condemned to death are equal to torture for the guilty and his or her family: The prisoners have no right to lie down during the day, their cell is lit 24/7, they hear on their death day that they will be executed and the family learns after the execution that it happened and have 24 hours to pick up the body. One tragic case is the story of Iwao Hakamada, who was released from death row but suffered irreparable mental damage due to the methods of treatment in prison. 

I also hear “Some people deserve to die.” Perhaps they do, but who “deserves” to die can be very subjective and the perception changes over time. And yes, most things are subjective, yet few things have severe consequences that can’t be undone. In Germany during WW2 people thought Jews “deserved” to die. Mindsets can change, killing someone is permanent. Could you comfortably carry this responsibility, the right to end someone’s life? Giving this right to someone else does not take your responsibility away. 

“There are cases that are beyond any doubt” is yet another argument. Partly, this is true. There is no reasonable doubt about what Saddam Hussein did. But is hanging him, as he likely did with others, really sending the right message? Moreover, in Japan the conviction rate is 99%. Extraordinary investigative work is likely not the only reason behind this rate… 

Other obvious verdicts have been overruled thanks to technological developments, such as DNA evidence. One such case was last year, when an African-American man was released after 20 years in prison. Had he been given the death penalty, it would have been too late for him. The article further states that nearly two thirds of the wrongfully accused are African-Americans, which is another warning towards the guilty-beyond-doubt argument. 

If you are for the death penalty, you must also stand for the fact that innocent people die and you walk a path that can turn disastrous to society as it has been shown in the past. What is the benefit? In the end, it is to satisfy the understandable, yet socially destructive feeling of retaliation. You accept that retaliation is more important than the protection of innocent lives. Is that the social value you want to represent? 

Please let us know what you think!

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