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Friday, 15 March, 2002, 11:55 GMT
The death penalty: Is it ever legitimate?
Tracy Housel has become the first British man to be executed in America for seven years.
The 43-year-old was given a lethal injection and certified dead at 0028GMT on Wednesday (1928 local time) in prison in Jackson, Georgia.
Housel had been on death row for 16 years after he admitted raping and strangling 46-year-old Jeanne Drew during a two-week homicidal spree in 1985.
Can the death penalty ever be a legitimate option?
This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
I am logically in favour of the death penalty, but overall I am against it, because I do not want to live in a country whose state kills people, for whatever reason. So no, I do not think it is ever legitimate.
To Jack from Georgia.
A very egocentric viewpoint. You expect us to stand " shoulder to shoulder" with you whilst your country interferes in foreign politics through brute force, but we aren't allowed to even comment on the use of the death penalty in your country? Very strange.
I agree with the death penalty but I also believe that it is the easy option for the criminals. They should be given just enough food and just enough water to keep them alive and then tortured like they tortured their victims.
I do not agree with the death penalty for 2 reasons. The first being the chances of someone innocent being put to death. The second is that it is an easy way out for the guilty. Perpetrators of heinous crimes like Roy Whiting who murdered Sarah Payne, should be made to serve, suffer and look themselves in the mirror every day. Life behind bars for this human rubbish should be a living hell, not a health club.
The death penalty is not considered to be a Christian act and so my opinion is that Americans cannot class themselves as Christians if they believe this is a way to behave. God did not tell us to take revenge on others. It is not also an appropriate way to behave from a country such as America which is looked at from around the world as a focal point for other countries to base their laws. God will judge Americans who believe in the death penalty in the same harsh way for any of their mistakes in life.
It has clearly not occurred to Steven Wey that the reason 90% of Alabama's death row cells are occupied by black prisoners is because black citizens commit 90% of Alabama's murders. Being politically correct is all very well - but for Steven's argument to carry any useful weight it needs to be statistically correct too.
The death penalty is legalised murder. Murder is never justified. It adds to the sum of evil in the world and we need to increase the sum of good. A powerful force conveying this message is the Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation in the USA - relatives of murder victims who have learned that "closure" and peace come from overcoming the desire for revenge and that we honour the dead not by committing murder in their name but by goodness: love, forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption which can lead us to a world without violence. Killing is wrong - no matter who does the killing.
A number of the arguments put forward here in favour of the death penalty are fundamentally flawed. Most murders are not premeditated and it is not common that murderers will re-offend, thus the 'They chose to take a life etc' argument will not stand.
Those who seek a biblical justification for their thirst for vengeance do so relying on a misreading of the Old Testament passage, and a complete lack of appreciation for the fact that the New Testament, which advocates turning the other cheek, and condemns notions of revenge.
Finally, the key reason why the Death Penalty will never be legitimate is the risk of state sponsored killing resulting in the loss of an 'innocent life'. For all those who presume that this is an acceptable risk, and even seek to quantify it in terms such as 1 in 100, I ask, What if that one was you?
Peter from the Netherlands, "Sub-Sahara" Africa did not hang anybody till the British "civilised" them. And there are more state executions in Algeria and Egypt than in the whole of "black" Africa combined. Separate your emotions from your facts.
Brendan McGowan, Ireland
To Jon Cooper (and to others who see a theological basis for the death penalty) who writes that he feels no sympathy towards murderers and that it puzzles him why people with an obviously compassionate nature who try and help death row inmates don't focus their efforts on more deserving causes. Isn't that the whole point about compassion and mercy? It is easy to show it towards those who deserve it but not so easy towards those who seemingly don't. However it strikes me that when Jesus said, "love your enemies" that was exactly what he meant.
The death penalty must be kept. There are some crimes for which only death penalty is a respective punishment. To me, these crimes are terrorism, some kinds of murders and assaults. If there is no "fearful" punishment in the society criminals become too bold because they feel their impunity.
"An eye for an eye and the world would be blind." - Gahndi
Tim Heffernan, USA
I don't believe the death penalty needs to be a deterrent. These people have no conscience anyway and probably assume they'll get away with it. To me its meant to say, as you devalued that person's life, so now is your life devalued. I can only seem to view from the victim's point of view. I immediately feel the helplessness and sheer horror these people must feel in their finally moments as their life is given zero value by the murderer and is maliciously taken from them. Most murder circumstances make me ill. Unfortunately, in Texas, the death penalty can only be applied to multiple murders, of a child younger than 6, of a police officer or murder while committing a felony. Consequently many murderers such as Patrick Richardson who strangled his wife and slashed her throat several times in front of his three young children (one of the boys will probably be forever traumatized by the fact that he ran and got the scissors to "help mama" because she couldn't breath. The father took the
scissors from him and then slashed and stabbed her) will probably end up paroled.
Kathy Drawdy, USA
The death penalty should be administered in full public view, preferably on national television. The horror of seeing it might restore it as an effective deterrent.
The death penalty can't be right if the quality of your lawyer decides whether you live or die. Full stop.
I am against the death penalty. Until we have a foolproof justice system where we get the verdict right 100% of the time, the risk of killing an innocent person is too high. One life wrongly taken is too high a price. However, if you commit a crime in a foreign country you are subject to their laws. If you commit murder in Texas you know that the penalty could well be the death penalty. I don't really see why being British exempts you from the laws and due process of that country. If you can't do the time, don't do the crime.
George Estrada, USA
If you don't think capital punishment is politically motivated just look at Southern US states like Alabama. Over 90% of people on death row and in prison in some states are black.
I have always believed the purpose of the justice system was twofold: To punish and to rehabilitate those who commit crimes. The US justice system is very good at the part on punishing, but not so good on rehabilitation. The death penalty makes that even more difficult.
It is interesting to note that Bermuda still carries the death penalty by way of hanging. Hasn't been used in a long time, mind.
Moral arguments aside, it costs less money to lock them up for life with no possibility of parole than to execute them.
John Yiu, Hong Kong
Whatever the rights or wrongs of the death penalty, the British Government has no business interfering in the US or any other country's judicial processes.
Andy's comment that the UK government should not 'interfere' in US law enforcement processes, where Britons are involved is ridiculous. As a Briton abroad I expect my country to support me in cases where the judicial system may be wrong and need looking at more closely. In the case of Housel, I am glad he got the death penalty. He did the crime, he confessed and eventually got the appropriate judgement.
In Europe, the death penalty now exists only in Turkey - and the last actual execution there was nearly twenty years ago. Russia, the Ukraine and most other parts of the former Soviet Union have all abolished it. Which leaves the US in the uncomfortable company of other primitive societies like China, the Koreas, the Islamic countries and sub-Saharan Africa.
An eye for an eye...
To Martin from England: Presumably by quoting "an eye for an eye" you're attempting to invoke some kind of theological support for capital punishment. What a shame it isn't forthcoming. Check Matthew 5:38, where Jesus makes it clear what he thinks of "an eye for an eye":
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well. And if someone wants to sue you and to take your tunic, also give him your coat. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to the one who asks you, and do not reject the one who wants to borrow from you."
By the way, I'm not religious, and one reason for that is because religion has this way of twisting what people said...
What you Brits do with your criminals is none of my business and I will not comment on whether or not I think the UK should reinstate the death penalty. Likewise, I would expect the same from you. I was deeply troubled that our closest friend overseas would want to step in and interfere with the punishment of a man who was no more a Briton than I am and who brutally raped and murdered one of my fellow citizens. It could have been my wife, my mother, my sister, my daughter, when I think of it in those terms I am proud of the state in which I live and justice was indeed served last night. Best regards and thanks to the UK for your overall support and friendship.
I come from Michigan in the US and am proud that the state of Michigan has never executed anyone. The penalty there for first degree murder is life in prison without any possibility of parole. Only a pardon from the governor can get a convicted murderer out of prison and that has rarely ever happened in the history of the state. The only way these people ever get out of jail is in a hearse after they have died a natural death. The answer is prison for life and meaning it!! Not prison for life and getting an early release. Just sit there and rot until you die. That is a fine punishment for such people.
Shaun, Teignmouth UK
Surely there is more to modern society than a simple mathematical equation? If all that matters is the number of lives lost or saved, then driving cars would be made illegal, as would smoking, as would the eating fatty foods. Surely there are fundamental values - such as the freedom of the individual and the sanctity of life - to be taken into account as well?
Where would the Birmingham Six be with the death penalty in place? And if you feel that the death of a few innocents is worth getting rid of all the other murderers, what happens if that innocent is you?
If Tracy Housel is put to death by lethal injection, it will mean justice for the family of Jeanne Drew who was raped and butchered by this man.
People seem to have forgotten her in this debate.
The Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, the Tottenham Three - that's thirteen innocent people just off the top of my head who would now be dead if capital punishment was still enforced. There are also countless others to numerous to mention. Thank God we no longer have the state sponsored murder of innocent people.
My opinions on the death penalty aside, this man committed the crime in a state that practices the death penalty. He has been found guilty and I fail to see on what grounds we interfere JUST for his benefit. Surely we must be against all instances of death penalty or none. This inconsistent approach is quite odd.
Jonny Moss, England
If we cast aside the moral arguments for a moment, we could learn a lot from "Executioner" the autobiography of Albert Pierrepoint. Pierrepoint stated that he could not think of a single instance where the death penalty served as any form of deterrent. Coupled with this, he draws attention to the invidious influence of political considerations when determining who should die and who should be reprieved. His book is a potent testimony for the abolitionist case.
I do have an alternative take on this issue: why not make the death penalty optional? A convicted criminal can either spend the rest of their natural life in a prison (no holiday camps please) or be put to sleep. Then no one needs feel guilty.
We here in Texas often receive the most (and not always unwarranted) criticism concerning the death penalty. I can see both sides of the issue and agree that, in many cases it seems unjustly administered and unnecessary. But then there are some cases in which I can not feel it unjust at all. For example, there was Kenneth McDuff. In the late 60s he was convicted of the murder of two teenagers in the Dallas area. He received the death penalty but, when it was declared unconstitutional in the 70s his sentence was commuted to life. He served his time and eventually, in 1989 he was paroled. He had served his time with no infractions and the parole was completely by the book. By the time he was recaptured and executed in 1998, he had abducted, tortured, raped and killed at least five women, probably more. What do you do with people like Kenneth McDuff? Some may say to keep them in prison forever. Why? Isn't this just a death sentence in its own way? I noticed there were no anti-death penalty activists protesting at his execution.
John, Anaheim, Ca, US
This man might deserve to die, but the main problem I see who decides. I wouldn't want that responsibility, and I certainly wouldn't trust another with it.
I definitely believe that if we still had the death penalty in place we would not witness the senseless murders of children by children such as the case of Damilola Taylor. I think we should bring it back - even if there is only one capital punishment in Britain I believe it would be a big enough deterrent to stop children turning to crime. As it stands a rap on the knuckles is not enough - nor is sending them on holidays on taxpayers expense or sending them to detention centres where they have Sky TV and games machines!
I understand that the murder rate went down in the US when they briefly abolished the death penalty in the 70s and went back up when they reinstated it. Would any of the string-em-up party care to explain that?
Never, ever. It represents a totalitarian relationship between the government and the people. How can you trust a government that has the power to kill you? It is backward, misguided and sad.
James, London, UK
This country also shows how hypocritical it is when one sees that the vast majority of the executed are from the poor and destitute classes of society. Would any powerful, rich American found guilty of murder - however foul - face the death penalty? If anybody can give me an example it would still be anecdotal. The argument that we should also think about the relatives of the murdered as justification is a specious one. I would like to know how many of these relatives can say that they finally achieved inner peace when the murderers were executed. We really have to mature as a species and not think that cathartic gestures are real solutions to the problems we face as "progressive" societies.
Ralph Hunt, Memphis, US
Didn't some of the pro-US propaganda shown whilst pursuing the Taleban invite us to hate the uncivilised foreigners a bit more because they performed public executions?
Sarah , UK
The death penalty is the ultimate sanction and must always be kept as an option by government. I have witnessed the aftermath of several executions whilst in the PRC (bullet in the head) and these were for hideous crimes. This option must always be available.
Until there is a way of absolute proof, the death penalty cannot be considered. To take a life when there is a possibility of a mistake makes the court a murderer.
To those who advocate the death penalty I ask you this: could you, personally pull the lever to kill your own relative, knowing that they are innocent, but unable to prove it in court of law? If the answer is no, why do you ask someone else to do the same thing?
The death penalty is not the answer.
R Callister, UK
While I would not like to be the one that presses the button, and while I feel that this penalty is contrary to my moral viewpoint, there have been occasions where I can understand the desire to rid the planet of such abhorrent people. Let us not forget that this person stole the innocent life of another.
I pray for the soul of this man, as I do the souls of those who have lost, and have yet to lose their lives in this troubled world.
Why should murderers, rapists, child abusers etc be allowed to live in a civilised world? Whether behind bars or released to re-offend, people who obviously have no respect for life should not be allowed to ruin ours. Lethal injection, electrocution, gas, all sound like an easy way out to me. Quick and painless beats being raped and murdered!!
People who commit murder should receive their punishment, and if that is death by execution so be it. I have not yet heard of an executed prisoner re-offending. Having said that it should only be used in cases of pre-meditated murder.
Greg from the UK points out that no one who has been executed has ever murdered again. True. And no one who has been wrongly executed - and nobody seriously denies there have been wrongful executions - has ever walked free. Happily, with so much exculpatory DNA evidence emerging in the last few years, Americans are gradually changing their views on this barbaric practice and coming to realise that the death penalty is not about justice or deterrence, but about base revenge.
I have always liked the argument, that no executed criminal ever re-offends, which has been proffered by one of the sages contributing to this topic. It reminds me of a comic book character, Judge Death, whose logic ran, all crime is committed by the living, make living a crime punishable by death and there will be no crime.
Mr Ed, US
Ideally, you want criminals to regret their crimes, to understand what they've done wrong. In a way, if you kill killers, they don't get a chance to understand the suffering they caused. To this end, the death penalty only works if Hell exists.
As one who does not believe in the after-life, punishment ends with the death penalty. Why not prolong punishment with many years of hard (and I do mean hard) labour. Or is it that the death penalty is the easier option?
Its all very well saying that you are against the death penalty, but would your argument change if you were related to the victim?
This guy murdered, and if let out again, potentially would do so again.
I wouldn't want that risk to be an option.
Put him to sleep and keep us all from danger.
Oh, and while we're on, bring back the death penalty in the UK as well.
Murderers are no use to anyone, but present a danger to everyone.
He obviously knew the maximum penalty for the crime he committed. He offended against the laws of America and should be served with American justice. If that is a death sentence, then so be it. He didn't spare his victims the luxury of life.
In this case, yes, the death penalty is justified. This man (for want of a better term) raped and murdered a woman and surely it should be her family who gets our support, not the perpetrator of the crime. He has admitted to being a serial killer, has committed his crime in a country where the punishment does fit the crime. No one can be forgiven for this sort of subhuman activity, and whilst his death will bring little satisfaction to anyone, at least it ensures that he can't carry out any more of these attacks. I realise this may sound extreme, but too much leeway has been given to the criminals, what about the rights of the victims, what about their human rights, and above all their rights to live in a peaceful environment?
With the science of DNA the death penalty should now be re-introduced into the UK. Criminals have got away with far too much for too long and it is now time for the do-gooders to stand down. They have had their way tried and tested, and proven it does not work. The death penalty should only be used where a life has been taken or attempted to be taken as long as there is DNA proof.
It is now time for reform of the judicial system, so why not add this to the courts choice? A permanent non re-offending choice.
If the death penalty acts as a deterrent, there are less murderers on the streets. If it doesn't there's one less murderer alive. That is not something I'm going to have a moral dilemma about.
Peter Martin, UK
The woman he killed could only be identified through dental records. If this doesn't deserve the death penalty then what does?
Look at how many murderers have left prison only to murder once more.
The way I see it, you can execute a murderer, or you can lock him/her up for many years. However, it seems overly cruel to do both i.e. lock someone up for 17 years, and then kill them. You can't have it both ways. By British standards, this man has already served a substantial portion of the life-sentence he would have received in the UK for the same crimes. I believe that the US should commute Tracy Housel's sentence to life in prison without parole.
The death penalty fails to be a deterrent, as can be seen in the US. Miscarriages of justice have occurred in the past, and while the death penalty exists, they will continue to occur. Executing someone costs up to four times as much than incarcerating someone for life.
Those are the practical reasons, which should be enough in themselves, but it must also be seen that execution is state sanctioned murder in revenge. Not justice - revenge. This lowers the judicial system and society to a moral level equal to or lower than the criminal, and so it therefore loses its legitimacy to pass judgement over a citizen and punish them accordingly. This is literally a matter of life and death and so should be decided as objectively as possible, and so obviously without the knee-jerk and overly emotive reactionaries. The sensible option is to discard the idea of capital punishment as the barbaric idea that it is.
I feel sick that the Western world can still be having this discussion. It brings out the absolute worst in people. What are we defending if we throw our morals out of the window to deal with people who have committed the ultimate sin by committing the ultimate sin ourselves? That is the point after all; every time someone is killed in the US it is done so in the name of the US people. I for one would feel disgusted if my country were to start killing in my name where other options exist.
Cathy Wilson, US
If the death penalty results in fewer innocent people being killed then it is not only justified, it is required on moral grounds. The question then is whether the death penalty dissuades more people from killing than are killed by mistake. A very unpalatable choice, but one we must make. To say that miscarriages of justice mean that we should not execute people misses the point. We should take the path of greatest overall benefit to society. If there is no clear evidence either way, then we should come down on the side of execution if only for the fact that it is the ultimate punishment. If however there is clear evidence that the death penalty does not save lives then we should not adopt it.
The death penalty is never an option.
If society is to survive the increasing wave of crime it needs to send a strong signal to the criminals that killing an innocent person will not be tolerated and their own lives will be forfeit.
In this case the man went on a self-confessed murder spree and I think too much time and resources have been wasted on him already.
I just wish Amnesty and all those other groups would spend more time defending the rights of victims instead of supporting the criminal which only serves to give support to their actions
Garry Ryan, UK
In response to Mr Ryan, capital punishment is actually far more expensive than imprisoning an individual for life, because in order to execute somebody millions of dollars has to be spent on appeals and the bureaucracy needed to get that person to the execution chamber. Likewise I can't think of any evidence that shows capital punishment leads to lower murder rates, for example the US has a much higher murder rate than the EU.
When you have a man locked in a cell, totally under your control, to execute him is murder. I am not religious, but to kill someone who wishes to live, and is no longer a danger to society, can never be justified. Life without parole is as big a deterrent as the death penalty. Also to Garry Ryan, two things, first to justify the death penalty on the grounds of cost savings simply disgusts me. Secondly in America it has been proved that the cost of 10 years of appeals is more expensive than life in prison.
Given the months maybe years of appeal and counter appeal, the death penalty is no longer an efficient deterrent. I agree that if you take a life, you should have yours taken, unfortunately if you don't have the death penalty, you have life imprisonment, which after good behaviour is maybe 30 years. Hardly a life for a life, is it? My point is that the legal system is regulated by groups of people who want to make sure that people who have committed a crime are treated humanely. Why on earth should people who have broken the law, especially murderers, be allowed to exist behind bars with any form of human rights. To effectively deter potential criminals from ever stepping over the legal line penalties have to be so harsh, so unthinkable, that prison should be the last place anyone would want to be.
Steve Hodgson, UK
Personally if pushed, I don't agree with the death penalty, as I don't feel any of us has the right to end someone's life. However I don't feel so strongly that I would expend any effort on the behalf of people such as Mr Housel. It puzzles me why some people with an obviously compassionate nature who try and help death row inmates don't focus their efforts on more deserving causes. It's hard for me to feel sympathy for murderers, I must be honest.
John Welford, UK
Anthony Jones, UK
12 Mar 02 | Americas
Final hope for death row Briton
12 Mar 02 | Americas
Death-row Briton denied clemency
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