October 29, 2003
Word count 2,821
Capital punishment and the media Slant on the topics
The media’s attitude to executions varies widely depending on the age and sex of the criminal, the type of crime and method of execution.
Middle aged men being executed by lethal injection in Texas for “ordinary” murders hardly rate a paragraph in the US press nowadays and do not get a mention in the U. K. media at all.
However a woman convicted of double murder and being injected on the same thing gets tremendous world wide media attention at all levels. Karla Faye Tucker this so call Christian. Who used a pick axe to kill people before being put to sleep she apologize for her sins and to her family. Equally a man being hanged in Washington or Delaware or shot by a Utah firing squad makes international news. (Wesley Allan Dodd, 1989 arrest in Washington State for the murder of 3 young boys ended his 15 year career of violent sex crimes. John Taylor murder of 6 women while sleeping. And yet women being hanged in Jordan (3 in 1997 and 2 in 1998), the 126 people publicly beheaded in Saudi Arabia during 2000 and men and women executed by the hundred in China for a wide variety of offences make very little news.
Why is this? Do we not care if the execution takes place in a Middle Eastern or Far Eastern Country? Are their criminals somehow perceived as lesser people with fewer rights? The media obviously does not judge many of these stories to be newsworthy although they are aware of them through the news wires from those countries (which is how I know about them). In Singapore when executions were reported, they typically only made a small article and aroused very little public interest. Most Singaporeans however firmly support the government hard line on crime and punishment.
During the late 70’s and early 80’s when executions were rare in America, every execution, by whatever means, attracted a great deal of media interest and yet now they are frequent (averaging over 1 per week) the authorities seem to have difficulty in finding sufficient official and media witnesses. They also used to attract pro and anti capital punishment protesters in large numbers but these seem to have dwindled down to just a few in most cases.
I tend to think that if executions were televised they would soon reach the same level of disinterest amongst the general public unless it fitted into a “special category” i.e. a first by this or that method or a particularly interesting criminal.
Is media coverage of executions just a morbid side show for some people, who deprived of public hangings etc., lap up every detail the media, has to offer, whilst the majority ignore the not very interesting criminals who are executed by lethal injection?
Lethal injection as my own survey has shown is perceived by most respondents as the least cruel method – probably because it is least interesting (sexy?) way of executing someone – a state of affairs that suits many States in America very well. The less the public interest, the easier the process becomes.
Probably the majority of people don’t much care either way and would rather watch football. They may vaguely support capital punishment but do not wish to be or feel involved.
However there are Pro and con to the Death Penalty
Arguments for the death penalty:
 Incapacitation of the criminal.
Capital punishment permanently removes the worst criminals from society and should prove much cheaper and safer for the rest of us than long term or permanent incarceration. It is self evident that dead criminals can not commit any further crimes, either within prison or after escaping or being released from it.
Money is not an inexhaustible commodity and the state may very well better spend our (limited) resources on the old, the young and the sick rather than the long term imprisonment of murderers, rapists etc.
Anti capital punishment campaigners in America sight the higher cost of executing someone over life in prison but this is (whilst true for America) has to do with the endless appeals and delays in carrying out death sentences that are allowed under the American legal system where the average time spent on death row is over 11 years. In Britain in the 20th century the average time in the condemned cell was less than 8 weeks and there was only one appeal.
Execution is a very real punishment rather than some form of “rehabilitative” treatment, the criminal is made to suffer in proportion to the offence. Although whether there is a place in a modern society for the old fashioned principal of “lex talons” (an eye for an eye) is a matter of personal opinion. Retribution is seen by many as an acceptable reason for the death penalty, according to my survey results.
Does the death penalty deter? It is hard to prove one way or the other because in most retentionist countries the number of people actually executed per year (as compared to those sentenced to death) is usually a very small proportion. It would however seem that in those countries (e.g. Singapore) which almost always carry out death sentences there is generally far less serious crime. This tends to indicate that the death penalty is a deterrent, but only where execution is an absolute certainty.
Anti death penalty campaigners always argue that death is not a deterrent and usually site studies based upon American states to prove their point. This is, in my view, flawed and probably chosen to be deliberately misleading. Let us examine the situation in three countries.
In Britain, between abolition in 1965 and 1998, the murder rate more than doubled (to around 750 per annum) and there have been 71 murders committed by people who have been released after serving “life sentences” in the same period, according to Home Office statistics. Statistics were kept for the 5 years that capital punishment was suspended in Britain (1965 – 1969) and these showed a 125% rise in murders that would have attracted a death sentence. Whilst statistically all this is true it does not tell one how society has changed over the those 34 years. It may well be that the murder rate would be the same today if we had retained and continued to use the death penalty. It impossible to say that only this one factor affects the murder rate. Easier divorce has greatly reduced the number of domestic murders; unavailability of poisons has seen poisoning become almost extinct, whilst tight gun control has reduced the number of shootings. However stabbings have increased dramatically as have the kicking and beating to death of people who have “looked at me funny” or “been eyeing up my girlfriend” i.e. vicious and virtually motiveless killings. As in most Western countries greatly improved medical techniques have saved many victims who would have previously died from their injuries (e.g. Josie Russell).
In most states, other than Texas, the number of executions as compared to death sentences and murders is infinitesimally small. Of the 598 executions carried out in the whole of the USA from 1977 to the end of 1999 Texas accounts for 199 or 33%.
Interestingly the murder rate in the U. S. dropped from 24,562 in 1993 to 18,209 in 1997 the lowest for years (a 26% reduction) – during a period of increased use of the death penalty. 311 (62%) of the 500 executions have been carried out in this period.
America still had 5 times as many murders per head of population as did Britain in 1997, whilst Singapore had 15 times fewer murders per head of population than Britain. How can one account for this? There are obvious cultural differences between the three countries although all are modern and prosperous.
It is dangerously simplistic to say that the rise in executions is the only factor in the reduction of homicides in America. There has been a general trend to a more punitive society (e.g. the “three strikes and your out” law) over this period and cities such as New York claim great success in reducing crime rates through the use of “zero tolerance” policing policies. But otherwise that has been political and economic stability over the period and no obvious social changes. Improvements in medical techniques have also saved many potential deaths.
As stated above Texas carries out far more executions than any other American state (between 1982 and 2000 it executed 254 men and 2 women) and there is now clear evidence of a deterrent effect. My friend Rob Gallagher (author of Before the Needles website) has done an analysis of the situation using official FBI homicide figures. Between 1980 and 2000 there were 41,783 murders in Texas
in 1980 alone, 2,392 people died by homicide, giving it a murder rate of 16.88 for every 100,000 of the population. (The US average murder rate in 1980 was 10.22, falling to 5.51 per 100,000 by the year 2000. Over the same period Texas had a population increase of 32%, up 6,681,991 from 14,169,829 to 20,851,820. There were only 1,238 murders in 2000 giving it a rate of 5.94, just slightly higher than the national rate which had dropped to 5.51/100,000. In the base year (1980) there was 1 murder for every 5,924 Texans. By the year 2000 this had fallen to 1 murder for every 16,843 people, or 35.2% of the 1980 value. If the 1980 murder rate had been allowed to maintain there would have been, by interpolation, a total of 61,751 murders. On this basis 19,968 people are not dead today who would have potentially been homicide victims, representing 78 lives saved for each one of the 256 executions. The overall US murder rate declined by 54% during the period. Therefore, to achieve a reasonable estimate of actual lives saved we must multiply 19,968 by 0.54, giving a more realistic figure of 10,783 lives saved or 42 lives per execution. Even if this estimate was off by a factor of 10, (which is highly unlikely), there would still be over 1,000 innocent lives saved or 4 lives per execution. One can see a drop in the number of murders in 1983, the year after Charlie Brooks became the first person to be executed by lethal injection in America.
In 2000 Texas had 1238 murders (an average of 23.8 murders per week), but in 2001 only 31 people were given the death sentence and 17 prisoners executed (down from 40 the previous year). This equates to a capital sentencing rate of 2.5% or 1 death sentence for every 40 murders.
Singapore always carries out death sentences where the appeal has been turned down so its population knows precisely what will happen to them if they are convicted of murder or drug trafficking – is this concept deeply embedded into the sub consciousness of most of its people, acting as an effective deterrent?
In 1995 Singapore hanged an unusually large number of 7 murderers with 4 in 1996, 3 in 1997 and only 1 in 1998 rising to 6 in 1999 (3 for the same murder). Singapore takes an equally hard line on all other forms of crime with stiff on the spot fines for trivial offences such as dropping litter and chewing gum in the street, caning for males between 18 and 50 for a wide variety of offences and rigorous imprisonment for all serious crimes.
Arguments against the death penalty
There are a number of incontrovertible arguments against the death penalty.
The most important one is the virtual certainty that genuinely innocent people will be executed and that there is no possible way of compensating them for this miscarriage of justice. There is also another significant danger here. The person convicted of the murder may have actually killed the victim and may even admit having done so but does not agree that the killing was murder. Often the only people who know what really happened are the accused and the deceased. It then comes down to the skill of the prosecution and defence lawyers as to whether there will be a conviction for murder or for manslaughter. It is thus highly probable that people are convicted of murder when they should really have only been convicted of manslaughter.
A second reason, that is often overlooked, is the hell the innocent family and friends of criminals must also go through in the time leading up to and during the execution and which will often cause them serious trauma for years afterwards. It is often very difficult for people to come to terms with the fact that their loved one could be guilty of a serious crime and no doubt even more difficult to come to terms with their death in this form. However strongly you may support capital punishment two wrongs do not make one right. One cannot and should not deny the suffering of the victim’s family in a murder case but the suffering of the murderer’s family is surely equally valid.
There must always be the concern that the state can administer the death penalty justly, most countries have a very poor record on this. In America a prisoner can be on death row for many years (on average eleven years 2000 figure}) awaiting the outcome of numerous appeals and their chances of escaping execution are better if they are wealthy and/or white rather than poor and/or black irrespective of the actual crimes they have committed which may have been largely forgotten by the time the final decision is taken. Although racism is claimed in the administration of the death penalty in America, statistics show that white prisoners are more liable to be sentenced to death on conviction for first degree murder and are also less likely to have their sentences commuted than black defendants.
It must be remembered that criminals are real people too, who have life and with it the capacity to feel pain, fear and the loss of their loved ones and all the other emotions that the rest of us are capable of feeling. It is easier to put this thought on one side when discussing the most awful multiple murderers but less so when discussing, say, an eighteen year old girl convicted of drug trafficking. (Singapore hanged two girls for this crime in 1995 who were both only eighteen at the time of their offences and China shot an 18 year old girl for the same offence in 1998.)
There is no such thing as a humane method of putting a person to death irrespective of what the State may claim (see later). Every form of execution causes the prisoner suffering, some methods perhaps cause less than others, but be in no doubt that being executed is a terrifying and gruesome ordeal for the criminal. What is also often overlooked is the extreme mental torture that the criminal suffers in the time leading up to the execution. How would you feel knowing that you were going to die tomorrow morning at 8.00 a.m.?
There may be a brutalising effect upon society by carrying out executions – this was apparent in this country during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when people turned out to enjoy the spectacle. They still do today in those countries where executions are carried out in public. It is hard to prove this one way or the other – people stop and look at car crashes but it doesn’t make them go and have an accident to see what it is like. I think there is a natural voyeurism in most people.
The death penalty is the bluntest of “blunt instruments” it removes the individual’s humanity and with it any chance of rehabilitation and their giving something back to society. In the case of the worst criminals this may be acceptable but is more questionable in the case of less awful crimes.
In conclusion, at the end of the debate we would seem to be left with three options.
1) Not to have the death penalty and the genuine problems it causes and continue to accept the relatively high levels of murder and other serious crimes that we presently have.
2) Re-introduce capital punishment for just the “worst” murderers which would at least be some retribution for the terrible crimes they have committed and would permanently incapacitate them. It would also save a small amount of money each year which could, perhaps, be spent on the more genuinely needy. This option is unlikely to reduce crime levels.
3) Re-introduce the death penalty in the really strict format outlined above and see a corresponding drop in serious crime whilst accepting that there will be a lot of human misery caused to the innocent families of criminals and that there will be the occasional, if inevitable, mistakes.
Author(s). “Title of Article.” Title of Source Day Month Year:
KATHY WALT. “Tucker dies after apologizing. Despite legal blitz, woman executed for pickax slayings”Houston Chronicle 2/3/1998 2
Cathianne Werner. Dodd get the death Penalty, Delaware State News 7/8/89 1page
Matt Kelley. Taylor Dies in chamber, Washington Post, 10/9/2000 2pages
Cynthia Morris. Capital Punishment in the United States: A Documentary History
CPUS cited source and page