Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria University College, Wellington N.Z. Vol. 20, No. 14. September 26, 1957
In November we are to decide whether, the death penalty for murder should be abolished or retained. There is need for painstaking consideration to be given to this question, for a decision that either gives or takes away life is the most important that any society can make.
The State hangs murderers for two reasons—as retribution, and as a deterrent. The deterrent theory has been so long regarded as effective by retentionists that much of the moral discomfort which people may suffer regarding retribution, has tended to be dispelled. However, it is now clear that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent. This has been proved by the experience of the many countries which have abolished capital punishment. In addition, the British Royal Commission (1949-53), and numerous eminent legal and medical authorities have shown that the deterrent theory is based on a fallacious analysis of the type of person who commits murder, and the circumstances in which most murders take place.
Not a Deterrent
In England, at the beginning of last century, 220 offenders were punished by hanging it was then held that hanging was a unique deterrent, and that its abolition would lead to an increase in crime. By 1837, the number of capital offences was reduced to 15. A further eduction to four occurred in 1861, and life and property remained as safe as before.
During this period, hangings were carried out in public and in batches. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Chaplain at Bristol Prison found that out of 167 convicted murderers. 164 had watched a public hanging this shatters the deterrent theory.
Capital punishment has been abolished in all Western European democracies except France. Altogether, 37 countries and states have done away with the death penalty, without in a single case suffering an increase in crime rate. This is testified by the mountainous statistical survey of the British Royal Commission.
|(1)||That abolition of the death penalty had not caused an increase in murder in a single European country. In most instances, abolition had been followed by a decrease.|
|(2)||That the eight American Stales which have abolished capital punishment were among the States with fewest murders in proportion to population.|
|(3)||That there was no evidence that abolition had led to an increase in murders by professional criminals, or to the carrying of firearms in any country.|
|(4)||That eminent witnesses of wide experience in the administration of justice considered that, in spite of all safeguards, there was a real risk of executing an innocent person.|
The figures in New Zealand for the twelve years. 1936-47, during which capital punishment was in abeyance, show a decrease in the murder rate.
Rev. I. C. Clements. Senior Chaplain of New Zealand Prisons, on the basis of his experience, rejects the death penalty as part of our penal system.
It was stated in a reputable British medical journal in 1931 that "every murder is an example of the failure of the death penalty to deter, and we have no knowledge that can justify the assumption that the removal of a penalty surviving from more barbaric times will be followed by an increase in the crime it is supposed to prevent."
Thou Shalt Not Kill
It the death penalty is not a deterrent, those who advocate its retention must fall back on retribution as an argument. This is to ignore the value and dignity of human life, and the teachings of Christianity. The oft quoted Old Testament Jaw of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." is misguidedly held up as the justification for the death penalty. This law was an historic advance by the Hebrews in limiting, not extending punishment, for in ancient societies, any offense could be met with the maximum retribution. Christianity claimed to advance further with: "Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good, we are not under the Law. . . The Law was our schoolmaster to [unclear: ring] us to Christ." (Romans 12:21. 6:15).
The writer of this article. Mrs. N. J. Stone, formerly Miss Joan Frost, was Women's Vice-President of A.U.C. Students' Association in 1954-55, and is now A.U.C. Delegate on N.Z.U.S.A. Resident Executive, For over a year she has been a Welfare Officer of the Maori Affairs Department.
Now the Jews themselves have discarded the death penalty which has been abolished in Israel.
Christians must then demand, not the death of a sinner, but his redemption, and a Christian society must work with the 'inner for his redemption. The late Archbishop Temple has stated. "From the specifically Christian point of view, vengeance is entirely illegitimate . . . and ought to be completely suppressed.
. . There must be repudiation of the act by the community. . . . Christianity itself calls for such sort of repudiation as does not hinder, but rather facilitates its supreme interest of effecting a moral restoration. ... I believe that the example of the State taking life, even when it only does so in return for a life already taken, does more to lower the value of human life in the minds of its citizens than the deterrent influence of this penalty can do to protect the lives of the citizen. In this way I believe that the main influence of the retention of the death penalty is rather to increase than diminish the number of murders."
Charles Dickens wrote, a century ago. "Not all the united efforts pursued through all our united lives could persuade me that . . . executions are a Christian law." John Bright added. "A deep reverence for human life is worth more than a thousand executions in the prevention of murder; and it is, in fact, the great security of human life the law of capital punishment, whilst pretending to support this reverence, does in fact lend to destroy it."
The hangman is, then, no longer the protector of society. As he does his work in our name, and we are his employers, each one of us who condones the death penalty, pulls the lever which deprives a human being of life, thus admitting to an un-Christian course of action, and demonstrating our utter barrenness to provide a humane and constructive solution.
Two wrongs can never make a right. We did not abolish drawing and quartering out of lack of sympathy with the victim of a crime, but because barbarity is incompatible with the self-respect of a civilised nation. To hang a murderer is not to show sympathy for the victim: nor does it bring back the life of the victim, it merely repeats a tragedy.
If An Innocent Perish . . .
Our laws are man-made and thus fallible, our law-givers and administrators are men and thus liable to error. With all the safeguards of our system of law, innocent men have been hanged. This has been testified by Mr. Chuter-Ede, a recent British Home Secretary. As long as there is the slightest chance of this happening, such an irrevocable penalty is insupportable. A prominent legal journal stated in 1930 that. "If it is essential to the case in favour of capital punishment that no mistake can be made, capital punishment stands condemned." There may be few innocent men hanged, but there is no consolation to these few, or to their families.
The People we Hang
The Jarge majority of murders are committed without premeditation, many of them by good citizens who have committed no previous offence, in circumstances which preclude any consideration of the consequences.
The report of the British Royal Commission stated that murder "is not generally the crime of the so-called criminal classes, but in most cases, an incident in miserable lives."
The relatively small number of planned murders are committed by men who believe that they will never be found out.
Secondly, it is not always realised to what extent murder is a crime of the disordered mind. Of the 4842 murders reported to the British police between 1900 and 1949, 1742 murderers committed suicide, and 1400 were found to be insane at some stage of the proceedings, even under our strict McNaughton Rules.
When it is appreciated that this does not include men like Christie, or aggressive psychopaths like Haigh and Heath, who if not insane in law, are plainly of abnormal mentality, it will be realised to wait extent murder is a crime of the disordered mind. It is therefore not surprising that the actual experience of abolitionist countries is that murder is, in substance, confined to the unpremeditated, in which cases the deterrent theory cannot operate, or to men whose mental condition makes them oblivious to the penalty.
A Constructive Approach
It has been frequently stated by medical authorities that many cases of mental disorder can be detected in early childhood. A more humane solution would thus be to devise tactical methods whereby early detection and care could be carried out before a tragedy occurs. The community acts too late when it hangs such a murderer. New Zealand could well implement the recommendations of the British Royal Commission for the secure institutionalisation and treatment of aggressive psychopaths and other mentally abnormal, borderline groups.
This procedure was actually recommended by the New Zealand National Council of Women in its submissions to a Government enquiry on this subject in I'>49. It was their opinion that "the expenditure of any sum of money to house such people would be a worthwhile investment."
Not The Penalty . . .
It is often said that the death penalty must be retained for the protection of our women and children But it was the National Council of Women who stated I hat "the evidence of history has shown us that the most wanton and brutal punishments, from nailing to the cross, burning at the stake, breaking on the wheel, castration, disembowelling, hanging and beheading, have not prevented murder, and modern experience of hanging has further proved the ineffectiveness of realiatory punishment."
Society must be protected against those who would take life. It can do so effectively without resort to the death penalty. Apart from adequate and constructive medical treatment, it has been stated by many authorities that it is not the severity of the penalty, but the certainty of conviction, that is the most effective deterrent.
The death penalty is an "act of despair."
—N. J. Stone.