|You are in: Talking Point|
Monday, 21 May, 2001, 10:43 GMT 11:43 UK
Can a capital punishment conviction ever be safe?
Select the link below to watch Talking Point On Air
The execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was put in doubt following revelations that the FBI failed to hand over large quantities of evidence during his trial.
The US Attorney General, John Ashcroft, delayed the execution after it was discovered that a number of documents were not passed on to McVeigh's defence team at the time of his trial.
McVeigh has made no secret of his guilt and Ashcroft appeared confident that the newly-found documents would not alter the decision to execute him.
Can a capital punishment conviction ever be safe?
We discussed this issue on Talking Point, the phone-in programme of the BBC World Service and BBC News Online. Use the form at the bottom of the page to add to the debate.
This Talking Point is now closed. Read your comments below.
Your comments since the programme
Alistair Sinclair, USA
There's a factor that hasn't been mentioned, which makes miscarriages of justice more likely. When a serious crime has been committed, police want to be seen to have made an arrest - they don't want to look like they were outwitted. Obviously some police are more concerned about getting the right person than others - but this tendency has shown up in many countries, and there have been cases of rigged evidence and so on. Those who support the death penalty really must ask themselves if they're prepared to let innocent people die - the criminals were prepared to let innocent people die, but are you?
"Safe" possibly; justifiable, never. McViegh is not being punished anyway as he clearly relishes death, and it is about time that all those in favour of capital punishment left their weak deterrence and cost of imprisonment arguments behind and admitted that it is retribution they want. They seem reluctant or ashamed to admit that though, which is interesting and suggests that even they think deep down that the whole thing can't be justified either in moral or practical terms. "Thou shalt not kill"; full stop; period.
We don't have the death penalty here, but I strongly agree with it. At the end of the day, if it is proved in a court of law, that you were responsible for murdering someone, you should be punished. Forget human rights, if you kill some one you should lose all your rights.
Since when did the retribution part of justice become uncivilised? Punishment is meant to punish, not just rehabilitate.
All the statistics mean nothing. Death-penalty countries have widely varying rates of crime, as do death-penalty free states. But only a fool could imagine it is not a deterrent. The electric chair has been on the mind of many a potential murderer.
If we kill a killer then what does that make us? However great the loss and however great the hurt, it still does not make things right to take life. Instead we stoop down to the same level as the one we condemn.
Rather, let us go with the belief that we bear the burden of our deeds forever.
If the death penalty is seen as justice for victims and their families how do you provide justice to the families of those wrongly executed? I would support the death penalty if there were a foolproof way to ensure every conviction was safe. Unfortunately this certainty cannot be provided and sorry just wouldn't be enough in those cases.
The important point is that the death penalty debases the society which uses it. The image of Americans world wide is becoming one of gun-happy lynch-mob killers. The stench of death seems to permeate their culture. They cover up the realities by quasi religious ritual and peculiar terminology - state murder is 'correction' or 'assessment' or 'adjustment' or any other euphemism which conceals the real purpose - satisfying crude bloodlust. Waves of synthetic sympathy for the victims give them self justification for what is really national rubber-necking.
Now they have a quandary - if they kill McVeigh they will undoubtedly make a martyr to a ghastly cause. If they don't kill him, the families of victims will not achieve 'closure' and, more important, the cynical media and the redneck religious establishment will turn on them.
Capital punishment is an issue like that of religion. It has no clear solution. For one, it does offer an uncivilised way of dealing with excessive criminal activity. On the other hand, it is argued in support on the legal basis on justification. Clearly, no one has the right answer. However, all things considered, Timothy McVeigh in my opinion should be relieved from society. He has proven through actions and words that rehabilitation will be a wasted effort.
Ron Blackburn, Houston, Texas, USA
I'd say abolish capital punishment! There's always a probability of a miscarriage of justice, and no matter how small this probability,it's still enough for abolishing the death penalty.
Further, even if the person convicted is indeed guilty, isn't a life in prison worse than death?
There are crimes committed where the perpetrator does not deserve do live.
However, in a civilised society there is no place for executions.
A conviction can only be considered truly "safe" if the accused freely and voluntarily pleads guilt. But, if the death penalty were the inevitable result, the only people who would do so would be types like McVeigh who want to make martyrs of themselves.
Though I agree some crimes deserve a harsher sentence than others, I don't believe the present death penalty system works. The principle of the death penalty should a) be seen as a deterrent to others and b) rid our society of vermin. It should not be used for revenge. So why the need for the electric chair or hangings? A lethal injection whilst the guilty person is sedated should be enough. Why the need to see someone die a painful and humiliating death? Another point I feel is important is that many of these criminals are often let down by the very same society that condemns them. How many times have you read stories about a killer who had a mental illness but wasn't given adequate medical attention? Or was seriously abused as a child? I'm not excusing or condoning their behaviour, but to solve a problem you need to find the root of it, not just the result of it.
Mike Richards, Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia
Of course not - and that's just one of the reasons we should not have capital punishment. What if the executed "convict" was found not guilty later, like Derek Bentley? Besides which, it has no place in a civilised world where you're punishing death with death - er, do two wrongs make a right?
Convicted murderers are like weeds
to a farmer's crops, if he allows the
weeds to grow along with his plants,
the weeds will overcome the crops
strangling them, leaving the farmer
with little or no crop yields.
We should liken this situation to
our world and assassins - more so
when the act is committed for no
justifiable reason. So I believe
there is no other just reward than
to eliminate such criminals as
soon as they are convicted, for
such people have forfeited their
rights to life and respect.
There is no need adding salt to
the wound by keeping such people
alive in prison, as it is agonising
to both murderer and victims'
families and is also an expensive
venture to the taxpayer.
No. Never safe. It's not even an issue to be discussed. Even an admission in open court is not enough to safely convict and then execute. How many times do we need to be reminded that an execution is irreversible? This one fact alone makes it unacceptable, regardless of the many other arguments for and against. In the USA the proportion of racial minorities to whites who are and have been on death row would indicate that either America is a deeply racist society or that non-WASPS are deeply amoral and criminally minded. I know which theory I prefer. The US only removed official colour segregation in some states in the 1960s!
Mariah Jones, Sumter, USA
There seems to be a growing belief that the judicial system exists to serve the victims and their families to allow some form of retribution and revenge. That is not the case, the judicial system exists solely to protect the innocent and nothing else. However, an imperfect system, created and run by imperfect human beings, will always make mistakes.
The price of justice is unacceptable if one innocent person dies for the sake of the 1000 guilty ones. Other than that - it is a sick, inhuman and barbaric practice, and the US with such a tradition of freedom should be ashamed of itself. The penalty's supporters should learn to rise above the mob mentality.
I rarely see any consideration of the fact that an execution requires an executioner. What kind of person is needed to fill that career? Are they different from us who debate the issue? Or do they progressively become different? Do we have the right to appoint an agent without considering the effects on his or her humanity? I think most definitely not. Why is the traditional black hood used to cover the eyes of the criminal? To spare his or her feelings or those of the executioner?
The process is barbaric and unworthy of any aspirations humanity may have to go forward in civilisation.
We all have the potential to kill. Evil, as is good, is in all of us. This belief that they are monsters are our way of somehow not facing the reality of evil as present in all of us given the right (or wrong, rather) circumstances. My sincere prayers for healing for all the victims in this horrible case.
In my opinion I think the death penalty is totally absurd. For one I don't like the media hype associated with the crime as this encourages others to follow the same track. I also feel that people involved in such heinous crimes should be put in solitude confinement for the rest of their life. We make it too easy for such people to get off the hook. I believe they should think and I mean really think over what they have done in solitude.
Csaba, Vancouver, Canada
Murderers need to be shown exactly the same compassion they showed their victims - none. Before their execution they will have had several appeals against their verdict, unlike their victims. With human rights come responsibilities, if you don't want to die then don't kill. For most people prison is sufficient deterrent to stop them committing crime. Maybe the death penalty would not be enough for others, but if it prevents one murder it must be worth it.
The Oklahoma City bombing was the biggest act of terrorism in US history, killing 168 people. I just don't understand why anyone wants to make it 169. America needs to show the world that we are better than the people (plural) that did this to us. There are over 200 militia, paramilitary, and hate groups in the United States. We must beat them by being better than them, not by dropping to their depraved level.
America will continue to be the most dangerous industrial country in the world until we can conquer the violent tendencies within ourselves, and our judicial system. Then we can wipe out most, but not all crime. Crime will always be a part of life, bringing dead six-month olds out of a shell of a building on TV doesn't have to be.
I fully support the death penalty. But in this case I am also a firm believer of conspiracy theory. It is absolutely clear to me that McVeigh was only one of many involved in the bombing. The most important guys are still out there. The biggest blunder of the FBI is to pretend that they did not exist.
In my view, the most obscene characteristic of human behaviour is that many are still prepared to countenance the ritual slaughter of their fellow man.
Capital punishment achieves no deterrent effect and relegates those who bay for it as having only marginally higher respect for life than those on whom they wish to see such punishment inflicted.
Capital punishment conviction can be safe in an exceptional case where it is proved beyond doubt that the person has committed the heinous crime, and has shown no remorse. The judicial system cannot be perfect. Hence, in all other cases, a person deserving the ultimate punishment under the law should be made to rot in a solitary confinement and never be granted parole. This is the only way to prevent miscarriage of justice. It would be worthwhile to study the Saudi and Singapore societies to find out what works to make it crime-free. I am sure it is not the fear of capital punishment alone.
Steven Sutherland, Toronto, Canada
Using the logic I am seeing here (since the judicial system can't be 100% perfect, the death penalty shouldn't be used) then I would have to conclude that since the judicial system can't be 100% perfect, people shouldn't be sent to prison. The day Americans treat a person who rapes and murders others the same way that Europe treats these people is the day I move to China.
Society has a responsibility to uphold the highest of moral and ethical standards and to stand as a model for those standards. To condemn murder and then practice it in the form of capital punishment is the worst form of hypocrisy.
When you can make the conviction 100% proven then maybe there might be a case for the death penalty. Recently here in Melbourne, Australia, a case from the 1920's has been reopened and 'modern' DNA testing has shown that the convicted and hung man was in fact innocent. He was convicted at the time using the 'latest scientific expertise' which everybody felt was 100% correct and despite his pleas of innocence the condemned man's claims were discounted because the scientific evidence proved the case. How many innocent people has the state murdered after due process?
It is a fact that a number of innocent
people have been executed for crimes
they did not commit. I would ask the
supporters of capital punishment to
imagine themselves talking their last
walk in such circumstances...
The simple fact is that a number of people have been executed in the USA while vehemently protesting their innocence. With the advent of DNA testing etc, they were later exonerated. This alone nullifies any claim that the death penalty should be used in any civilised society.
The death penalty is barbaric and there is no room for it in a civilised country. America's crime rate demonstrates that it is never a deterrent and it merely serves to brutalise society.
Manithan, Melbourne, Australia
Is there any justice in the fact that one person can take the lives of 280 and then claim to have human rights? Did those 280 have human rights?
The case against the death penalty is part of the agenda of well-meaning human rights campaigners who are doing nothing but reverting the role of perpetrator and victim. In Belgium, criminals (even those convicted of first degree murder) are often released after serving only one third of their sentence.
The death penalty may seem inhumane, but what about the acts of the criminal involved? Has anyone of the contra-campaigners in any way ever been involved with the consequences on the victims of the crimes committed?
Ibrahim Aladwani, Kuwait
Why does an 'eye for and eye' mean it is OK to kill someone? Taking someone's eye is very different to killing them!!
Putting the murderer in exile is no loner feasible. They have acted like animals and therefore should be treated like animals until such a time that they repent for their crimes. Only then do they get their right to be 'human' back. Put them in empty cages, don't let them out. Let the public visit them, to take pictures and stare at them through the bars.
It seems to me that the element of deterrence is outweighed by another factor, which perpetuates the violence in a more general way. America has a streak of mercilessness in its national psychology, which is in ordinary people, in its legal system, and is passed onto its children - and its criminals.
The way to begin taking this vicious circle of violence apart is to make a life sentence mean life, and remove the death penalty.
Zubin, Oxford, UK
For many years I was a supporter of the death penalty, even more so after the pub bombings of 1974 in my hometown of Birmingham.
However, sending a person to his or her fate is not an exact science especially when new evidence, or new eye witnesses, or better DNA testing proves the convicted person is actually innocent.
I guess a proper life sentence would be the better alternative, but a prison life without parole, TV, computer games etc.
In addition the victims and their relatives should also have a say in what happens because it is to them that the crime is most personal and thus most relevant.
There are no circumstances under which the death penalty can be justified. It is not a deterrent. Jurisdictions in which capital punishment is enforced generally have higher rates of criminal homicide than in non-capital jurisdictions. It is not 'cheaper' than life imprisonment. Studies by the Universities of Texas, Princeton, and Chicago among others, estimate that every execution costs up to six times as much as keeping a person locked up for forty years.
When death penalty states like Texas get
their murder rates down to Canadian levels
(would require a 75% reduction) I might consider
listening to death penalty advocates.
I was making comments supporting the execution of Timothy McVeigh in all fora. Now I am seriously thinking. The latest FBI issue really made me wonder where we are heading to.
The faith is lost!! I don't wish anybody to be given the death sentence. The judicial system needs overhauling!
In American law, an individual has the right to go after an attacker after the attack if the attacker still represents a real threat. The death penalty is nothing more then the state embodiment of self-defence as such - the person being executed is still considered a threat, even after capture.
Rosie Young, Sydney, Australia
Beyond any question, Timothy McVeigh was responsible for the Oklahoma city bombing resulting in the deaths of many innocent people. I cannot rationalise why this person should be a member of my society. Anyone caring so little for the lives of other humans simply has no place in any society. Even if he were given life in prison, does that really accomplish anything? I certainly do not believe that he can be rehabilitated. Anyone that sick is beyond hope. Serving prison time would accomplish nothing.
Thus, I ask any death penalty
opponents, why should this person
live? He is a detriment to society,
he cannot be rehabilitated, and
he has committed the most atrocious
crime imaginable. In a case such
as this, I believe that the death
penalty serves as a just penalty.
He has killed innocent victims.
Why should this guilty criminal
continue to live?
Well,somebody suggest a way to deter people from commiting such heinous crimes. Till then, let the death penalty be there.
Whether it can be made safe or not in the future, the fact is that right now it isn't completely safe and to continue handing out the death sentence in a system that is not is absolutely watertight is plain wrong. Whether you are for or against the death penalty and you cannot argue that in recent times a number of death row inmates have been acquitted, so obviously innocent men are being convicted.
Arguing that the system is always working to make itself safer only shows that right now it isn't absolutely safe and as such shouldn't exist.
I am embarrassed to be an American. Capital punishment is nothing more than legalised murder. Whether one suffers this penalty in the US is directly related to one's income and race. God spare us from any more Supreme Court "selected presidents" and the barbarity that the right wing of this country represents.
From the time we are small children we are taught that two wrongs do not make a right. This idea should apply to the death penalty. Yes many of these people have committed unspeakable crimes but to kill them is not the answer. Death is too easy for these criminals, they deserve to sit in prison for the rest of their lives and have to live with their guilt. And then there are the people that are in fact innocent.
There is no way to bring a person back once they have been executed. The crime of murdering an innocent person is no more accpetable for the government than for the criminals from the general population.
The use of capital punishment does not deter the acts of criminals. Where is the logic in killing a person to show that killing is wrong?
Civilised people do not have the right to knowingly take the life of another under any circumstance.
Unfortunately many of our US citizens, government and police think otherwise.
Which is why we lack respect in the eyes of many around the world.
Since 1973, 94 people have been released from prison in the USA after being convicted of murder and sentenced to death, when further investigation of their cases proved either that their convictions were unsafe or that they were definitely innocent. I think that answers this question pretty decisively.
By the way, the Bible does not defend the principle of "an eye for an eye". The whole point of the Bible story in which it occurs is that Jesus disagrees with that principle and urges greater forgiveness from his followers.
I'm not a religious believer myself, but I'm sure that the regular misuse of that phrase by those who want to have their bloodlust satisfied by the law must greatly irritate real Christians.
Here we have a man who wishes to be executed. The morality of capital punishment is not the issue here, surely anyone who wishes to die should be made to sit out the rest of his life in solitary confinement, or will we all be allowed to chose our own punishment if we commit a crime?
It is a sad indictment on our species that this debate is occurring in the 21st Century. To me the use of lethal injections is just as barborous, and just as mindless, as Hang drawing and quartering was, not so long ago in our history. It only serves to sanitise people's basest fears, which feed their need for revenge. When the FBI fails to submit 3000 documents in their country's highest profile case, it makes you wonder what sort of deal all those other people on death row got.
Our justice system should remove itself as far as possible from the irrationality of emotions. Yes, a death penalty conviction can be safe, but it can never be right.
I think the death penalty is perfectly justifiable. However, there is only one drawback, if you kill the wrong man or woman, you can't exactly undo your mistake.
It sickens me to hear Ashcroft, or anyone else, refer to this execution as 'justice' or 'closure'. The death penalty has never been proven to be a deterrent, nor a punishment. Punishment implies suffering and a lesson learned. Logically neither is possible as the process is now painless and death rather puts a kabosh on the acquisition of knowledge.
The death penalty is based on ancient 'eye for an eye' principles that have long served to slake the human thirst for vengeance. It is not punishment, nor justice, but revenge, one of the baser of human desires. Therefore to hear allegedly intelligent people speak of putting someone to death as justice is obscene and we debase ourselves by doing so. What McVeigh did is obscene 168 times over. But death will not only hand him the notoriety he wants, but will be quick and painless.
Put him in with the general prison population. He won't last five minutes.
Justice itself can never be "safe". It has certainly come a long way, and when the Attorney General says that the judicial system has its own value that must be protected (by delaying the execution), he is probably right. That system, at least in most Western countries, deserves some credit. But it is still delicate.
There are people in this world that should be locked away for the rest of their lives, and I believe McVeigh is one of them. But society should leave itself as many opportunities as possible to correct wrong verdicts even years after they were brought. And it should leave the criminal a chance to regret what he did. This is something the "Religious Right" should think about. If there is a God, life and death decisions are up to him.
Timothy McVeigh's clear guilt, and the lack of mitigating circumstances in his case, are poor guides to other cases that might attract the death penalty. It takes a leap of moral insight, I suppose, to see that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong, but the ever-present possibility of executing innocent people should be enough to discredit it. As for those people who deny that capital punishment is a kind of murder, this strikes me as a clear instance of a distinction without a difference.
Scott M Erlandson, St Paul, USA
We say that the death penalty is "inhuman". Yet we somehow find humanity in economically colonising developing countries, which leads to the death of millions of people each year, yet we surprisingly argue over the outcome of the truly guilty. The verdict is clear, McVeigh should pay for his crime.
Here in Texas the number of executions is one of the highest in the United States, but the murder rate is no lower than other states, and higher than some. The government has never been able to show a correlation between the death penalty and murder or other crime statistics.
The anti-death penalty lobby is desperately hogging the moral high ground but I'd say that ground is looking rather shaky. Innocent people die by accident every day. I suppose that's a 'sham' too. Whether the convicted murderer rots in prison or gets a quick release through death, if it transpires that he was innocent he has been 'wronged' just the same. A jury does its best in the circumstances.
A conviction followed by execution cannot easily be accidental. Nor is it wilful in the sense that murder is. I can't see how we are justified in passing a sentence that is in no way commensurate with the crime because 'we must not sanction killing'. If this is how we┐re going to think let's stop driving, smoking, going on weekend benders, growing old... Tell you what! Why don't we just lock ourselves up in a monastery?
Can a capital punishment conviction ever be safe? Certainly with one simple proviso. Should anyone innocent be put to death, and the case against them later proven to be deliberately rigged, then those responsible should face a minimum of 25 years in prison. No chance of parole. That would concentrate a few minds.
Capital punishment works, Arabia and Singapore both have the lowest crime rates in the world and they both use capital punishment. I recently went to Saudi Arabia and saw shopkeepers with my own eyes leave shops full of gold and expensive watches unattended whilst they went to pray to the Mosque. A truly amazing system, one has to congratulate them.
I find it so ironic that the USA continues to execute people while at the same time it wants to portray itself as the great defender of world ride human rights. All of Western Europe has abolished the death penalty. It's only places like China, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the USA which continue it. So how sincere is the USA about human rights?
I believe in punishing the criminals.
But to execute someone should not be in our hands.
Capital punishment should not evoke any polemics. Do unto others what you want them do unto you. Even though it seems spiteful, it serves as a deterrent to some heinous criminals who would have taken the same way and saves the government from unnecessary expenditures without income. More so it alleviates the emotional pain of those whose relatives where victims in the hands of the murderer.
Even China does not imprison as high a percentage of its citizens. Compared to other western nations, the USA is by factors of 10 or more removed from the average, let alone the best of them. The death penalty is no deterrent to anything.
Most capital punishment convictions
are safe. There have been few,
if any, innocent people, executed
for capital crimes. McVeigh's
execution has been delayed
because of a technicality, which
underscores the fact that the fact
that guilty criminals are running
free and terrorising society and
is a much greater problem than
innocent people being executed.
The fact that even one innocent person has been unjustly executed by the state should be reason enough to outlaw the punishment. Furthermore, the only people it proves to punish are the families of the convicted. They are just as innocent as the victim's family, and the last thing we need here in the States are more victims.
It is not the death penalty in the case of McVeigh which is unjustified, but the prurience exhibited by people such as Gore Vidal (reporting for "Vanity Fair") that needs to be examined.
McVeigh knew of the penalty prior to committing this heinous act. A media circus is the last thing that we need. McVeigh should die alone, in the same manner as his victims.
Which is crueller? Killing a man outright, or killing him in a cage 40 years from now? I think the answer is obvious.
I. Aitken, Manchester, UK
The fact remains that the majority of inmates on death row are ethic minorities and people too poor to pay for legal decent council. Surely this cannot be justice? The land of the free? Only if you can afford it!
The human race's public fascination with executions hasn't changed much since we were publicly stoning people centuries ago.
Timothy McVeigh probably wants his execution public. He will be more remembered than most. Make his death private.
Aren't there enough shows on television both fake and real to get people excited? I guess not.
M.P. Marshall, London, UK
McVeigh insists he was right to kill, the USA insist they're right to kill - what's the difference between the two?
I find it disturbing for my country to be lumped with others such as China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. It's no wonder we were voted off the UN's commissions on human rights. I think the international community has given our government a well-deserved slap on the face.
State-sanctioned murder is no more acceptable than the violent crimes it claims to deter.
Life should mean life, with none of the modern day luxuries presently afforded to prisoners.
Murders and the like, should be made to suffer the same living hell as the victims' families and not be
offered an escape from remorse that death ultimately brings.
Prisons or penitentiaries should be places of social reform where a humane society works to help those that are sick, ill - or fair enough - plain murderous/evil/term it how you will. Taking the life of another person is never a solution to hate and sorrow and agony caused - it only begets more of the same.
The death penalty has been around for how long? It has served society well for thousands of years. Many in our "modern" society, who equate softness with civility, find it too "barbaric" for their delicate stomachs. No further back than fifty years, people still realised that society could not let murderers enjoy three square meals and a dry place to live out their lives, while their victims were in the graveyard. People then recognised the unfairness of such an arrangement. But we have become so devoid of moral fibre and principal that we can't abide the thought of just retribution.
In the McVeigh case, there is no doubt that he personally murdered 168 men women and children, and remains to this day, pleased that he did. Happily, those of you here who are too lily-livered to do what must be done, have nothing but an empty say in the proceedings.
The idea of watching a public execution is disgusting and that says more about the individuals who would want to witness such a spectacle.
The biggest argument against re-installing the barbarity of the death penalty is the mere mention of the cases of the Guilford Four or Birmingham Six who would have gone to the gallows for crimes they did not commit. How do the "string em up" brigade get round that? Answer - they don't!
No other country in Europe uses it because it is immoral and brings the state down to the level of the killer.
08 May 01 | Americas
Gore Vidal defends McVeigh
19 Apr 01 | Americas
McVeigh death banned from web
12 Apr 01 | Americas
Victims to view McVeigh execution
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites
Other Talking Points:
Links to more Talking Point stories
|^^ Back to top
News Front Page | World | UK | UK Politics | Business | Sci/Tech | Health | Education | Entertainment | Talking Point | In Depth | AudioVideo
To BBC Sport>> | To BBC Weather>>
© MMIII | News Sources | Privacy