Capital Punishment:

Doctrine of Torture and Kill

That hundred and forty years after Fyodor Dostoyevsky enlightened us against capital punishment, we still persist with it in some parts of our planet, belies our insensitivity towards the sensitivities of these condemned by the justice system of our own making. What Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin said in The Idiot then is something forever,

“When they announce the sentence, you know, and prepare the criminal and tie his hands, and cart him off to the scaffold — that’s the fearful part of the business. The people all crowd round— even women — though they don’t at all approve of omen looking on. And I may tell you — believe it or not, as you like - that when that man stepped upon the scaffold he CRIED, he did indeed,—he was as white as a bit of paper. Isn’t it a dreadful idea that he should have cried — cried! Whoever heard of a grown man crying from fear — not a child, but a man who never had cried before — a grown man of forty-five years? Imagine what must have been going on in that man’s mind at such a moment; what dreadful convulsions his whole spirit must have endured; it is an outrage on the soul that’s what it is. Because it is said ‘thou shalt not kill,’ is he to be killed because he murdered some one else? No, it is not right, it’s an impossible theory. I assure you, I saw the sight a month ago and it’s dancing before my eyes to this moment. I dream of it, often.”

The cruelty of the capital punishment lies not only in inflicting an unnatural death upon the convict but also in the inimical life he is forced to lead before it ends on the gallows.

Even in terms of legal equity, the capital punishment, in the rarest of the rare cases, is untenable in our country, where  criminals routinely manage to slip through the yawing gaps in our investigative mechanism or evade prosecution exploiting the loopholes in our criminal justice system, where the apathetic prosecution procedure enables the indicted to obtain bail, albeit after a short stint at the goal as under-trials, and to remain at large thereafter, where life-imprisonment for murder means but a fourteen-year sentence, which might get curtailed by the whim of a payroll, born out of the fancy of a political expediency. Given the realities of criminality, the fallacy of the advocacy of capital punishment should be apparent for the informed, whose clarion call should be for the speedy trial and effective incarceration in our country.

Be that as it may, unmindful of the realities of crime and punishment, it is the penchant of the proponents to view capital punishment as a means of deterrence to murder. While the spirit of the statute is to ensure the right to life etc. of the citizens, it is but a naïve argument that without the capital punishment in place everyone would be at each others’ throat. It is worth noting that in spite of the well-meaning rent control act, which in practice proved to be inimical to the landlords, they are not known to take recourse to violence to evict the tenants. And notwithstanding the statutory provisions of divorce for infidelity, an odd man still murders his unfaithful wife. So, it is not the laws, sound or otherwise, that condition the reactions of the involved but it is the individual mind-set that shapes one’s reaction to the perceived injustices. Thus, while the presence of the capital punishment on the statute has not obliterated the murderous mind-set in some, so its absence from it is not going to make us murderers all. On the other hand, it is the mind-set of the murderer that defines his life as a lifer - lack of remorse and the absence of repentance would ensure a troubled existence, a life-long punishment by itself, self-imposed at that.   

In its primitive form, laws were made to punish those crossing the legal boundaries drawn around individual social spaces and invariably it was the have-nots who were left catching the wrong end of the legal stick of trespass. Why, in the 19th Century England, many a hapless and hungry ended up on the gallows for stealing, believe it, a loaf of bread! If the harshness of the sentence mirrors the ‘unjustness’ of that age, that someone was caught in the act of pick-pocketing at the public hanging of a pick-pocket exposes the ‘naiveness’ of the ‘death as deterrent’ supposition. Well, it is other times now when ‘justice’ does not seek gallows for the ‘haves’ who bungle public money in billions in white-collar crimes. Lest our own posterity should perceive us as barbarous forbearers, we must bring the curtains down on the obnoxious capital punishment - murder most foul - by understanding the underlying absurdity of it all.

It is averred that only by hanging the murderer that the deceased’s ends of justice would be met. Going by this analogy, God must be hanged over and again to meet the ends of justice of those who perish in the Act of God Perils such as typhoons, floods et al. How absurd. The cruelty of the capital punishment lies not only in inflicting an unnatural death upon the convict but also in the inimical life he is forced to lead before it ends on the gallows. As Shakespeare averred, “death, a necessary end, will come when it will come” but the thought of the ‘inevitable death’ never bothers us, the free men, to bog us down in our life till the very end that is. It is not hard to imagine that a convict on the death row is condemned to live with death on his mind devoid of the blessing of life-hope, which is but ‘living in torture’. So, the mercy that death shows man, is denied to the convict on the death row, and that makes the capital punishment, murder most foul – torture and kill. 

Arguably, the ‘catch and hang’ Kangaroo trial saves the convict from the mental torture of the pre-gallows incarceration but our judicial sensibilities would rather have a free and fair trial, prolonged though, to ensure that no innocent gets punished even at the cost of letting off a dozen guilty. Well but of what avail is the ‘fair procedure’ that unwittingly sanctifies cruelty towards the convicted and whither goes the judicial sensitivity when it comes to letting the convict rot in the cell robbed of his hope before the hangman snuffs out his hope-less life?

We have the last word of Prince Myshkin, penned by the genius of Dostoyevsky, “I believe that to execute a man for murder is to punish him immeasurably more dreadfully than is equivalent to his crime. A murder by sentence is far more dreadful than a murder committed by a criminal. The man who is attacked by robbers at night, in a dark wood, or anywhere, undoubtedly hopes and hopes that he may yet escape until the very moment of his death. There are plenty of instances of a man running away, or imploring for mercy — at all events hoping on in some degree — even after his throat was cut. But in the case of an execution, that last hope —having which it is so immeasurably less dreadful to die, — is taken away from the wretch and CERTAINTY substituted in its place! There is his sentence, and with it that terrible certainty that he cannot possibly escape death — which, I consider, must be the most dreadful anguish in the world. You may place a soldier before a cannon’s mouth in battle, and fire upon him — and he will still hope. But read to that same soldier his death-sentence, and he will either go mad or burst into tears. Who dares to say that any man can suffer this without going mad? No, no! it is an abuse, a shame, it is unnecessary — why should such a thing exist?”

What else is the capital punishment that punishes those with ‘death on their mind’ twice for the same crime - with long imprisonment followed by execution - but the doctrine of torture and kill?

Read Also:  Abolition of Capital Punishment 


More by :  BS Murthy

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Views: 3500      Comments: 6

Comment From Ed Pilkington's article "Troy Davis execution: repeated trips to death chamber 'amount to torture' - "The Guardian" 20 September 2011
"Should the execuction of Troy Davis go ahead on Wednesday night as expected, it would be the fourth occasion he has come within a short time of being administered with lethal drugs in as many years.
On 23 September 2008, Davis came within 90 minutes of execution. He was taken off the gurney after the US supreme court intervened.
That was his second execution date. On 16 July 2007 he was granted a stay just one day before he was due to die, and on 24 October 2008, at the third attempt to kill him, he was spared temporarily three days before his execution date.
Experts in death row and its psychological impact on prisoners say that such multiple exposure to imminent judicial death is tantamount to a form of torture. It can induce post-traumatic stress disorder, and human rights campaigners say it should be classified as cruel and unnatural treatment that should be banned, irrespective of the guilt or innocence of the prisoner."

BS Murthy
21-Sep-2011 07:45 AM

Comment About the sneering ‘projected histrionics of a novelist’, it is worth noting that a novel is about ‘the exploration of human condition’ in which, to borrow from Jane Austin, the greatest faculties of human mind are on display. In the intellectual perception of many, the argument against the capital punishment is underscored by Dostoyevsky’s profound observation that ‘to execute a man for murder is to punish him immeasurably more dreadfully than is equivalent to his crime’ and it is they who pitch for its abolition.
But since Dostoyevsky’s ‘humane proposition’ is up against the ‘conventional wisdom’ in some quarters, the protagonists of the practice must ponder over the question – Isn’t life imprisonment itself a ‘life impairing’ punishment? If the debate is guided away from the ‘pro and contra’ of capital punishment into the realms of the ‘need or otherwise’ to persevere with it there might emerge a consensus on this contentious issue.

BS Murthy
13-Sep-2011 02:51 AM

Comment Having dwelt on the matter, I see that the failure in FD's reasoning is the flawed psychology. It is in human nature to live according to a principle of rightness, whereby everything is assessed. Thus poor people can live alongside rich people and feel no undue grievance if the rich are seen to play by the rules. Our own actions are weighed in a moral scale, and if we have transgressed the law, we accept the punishment: for example, if we park the car illegally, and receive a ticket, we accept this; and if we appeal we have grounds for doing so. This rigourous sense of moral balance is what keeps us sane and fulfilled. If I have committed murder, I know the consequences under the law. I might claim mitigating circumstances, or even deny the offence in the hope that I may escape the sentence; but if I am sent to prison, I know in my own heart that if I am guilty I deserve the punishment under the law for my action. This is what FD misses, especially in the case of murder, the knowledge of the criminal of the justice in his sentence: that very sense of rightness upon which the whole community is founded and is sustained by.

This point is blatantly overlooked in those arguing for abolition of the death sentence. One aspect you mention is the anticipation of the murderer of his own 'legal murder', if we can even concede that term. One abolitionist feels he is scoring a major point in asking us to consider the anguish in the mind of the prisoner knowing he is going to be put to death at 8.00am next morning: 'How would you feel?' He then asks us, resting his case. Of course, I would feel outraged, because I have done nothing to deserve it, whereas the murderer knows that this is the just consequence of his dire deed. It is this acceptance that becomes his strength. Prince Myshkin in the quoted tirade never once mentions this, in the murderer's mind, that equation of his taking of another human life with the punishment due, even the death penalty. This resolution of justice is a matter of personal integrity to accept, which redeems the murderer, not the projected histrionics of a novelist or an abolitionist. It is what keeps the prisoners on 'death row' resigned to their fate - that what they are faced with is the consequence of their action.

12-Sep-2011 08:34 AM

Comment In my opinion, in hideous crimes proven with certainty, the mind of the trinity of atman, body and mind is gone. It would be somewhat foolhardy to bereave the death of such a body, that itself has no conscience when it comes to the beneficense of the society. I am not sure life-time sentence is any less cruel than 'quick' justice.

11-Sep-2011 15:19 PM

Comment 1) With regard to the first paragraph, I think, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s eyewitness account of the after-affects of a last minute reprieve to the about-to-be-executed is worth recalling. The Czar, wanting to play a prank with ten condemned men, all lined up against the wall for execution by a firing squad, so contrived to announce their reprieve instead of the firing order. And the real-time affect of the last minute mercy on these made Dostoyevsky apply his mind to the issue of capital punishment – that out of the ‘pardoned’ ten, while three died as their heart seized, five became insane, only a couple came out unscathed (I don’t recall the exact breakup) underscores the argument against the capital punishment. 2) The example of ‘Saddam Hussein facing the hangman's rope with utter equanimity’ even if it is true, falls under a different category of a man who, driven by an obsessive belief – religiously driven or patriotically inspired - in his own conduct, believes he is being martyred for his chosen cause to be remembered for all times to come. There is no such ‘mental comfort zone’ on the gallows for the vast majority of the convicts who kill on the ‘spur of passion’ and lament their life in the ‘face of death’. 3) True, “the death penalty is a statutory punishment wherever it applies” but it can as well be removed from the statute as many a country did away with (the whole idea of this and other such arguments is to try to evoke public consciousness to induce the parliament to revoke the same) and about “(it) is (being) well known to the killer before he commits his crime” it may be appreciated that majority of the murders are ‘crimes of passion’ swayed by emotion transient though strong.

2) About the innocent getting a judicial raw deal, in my article, it was mentioned in the passing - Arguably, the ‘catch and hang’ Kangaroo trial saves the convict from the mental torture of the pre-gallows incarceration but our judicial sensibilities would rather have a free and fair trial, prolonged though, to ensure that no innocent gets punished even at the cost of letting off a dozen guilty. Your ‘feelings of your heart’ in this regard amply support the cause for the abolition of the obnoxious capital punishment negating the preceding ‘propositions of your mind’ against it.

BS Murthy
10-Sep-2011 02:57 AM

Comment The argument that capital punishment is wrong because based on the certainty of death is a strange one; which is further clarified as being without hope for the condemned; though the latter himself has killed someone, whom the argument maintains, absurdly in my opinion, had hoped to live till the moment he perished: a matter of minutes, seconds even. I disagree strongly with the view of the novelist as projected by Prince Myshkin, that the condemned lives an agony of anticipation of his death; rather is it the case that he is disillusioned of a sense of escaping death which all of us have: disillusionment cannot be a bad thing. One has only to cite the example of Saddam Hussein facing the hangman's rope with utter equanimity, to prove Prince Myshkin is falsely making one hysterical case out of all executions. Be that as it may, the death penalty is a statutory punishment wherever it applies, and is well known by the killer before he commits his crime.

Not mentioned in your article is the miscarriage of justice associated with the death penalty imposed on those who might in fact be innocent of the crime; quite commonplace due to the compulsion to scapegoat victims, as they properly become, in order to satisfy the judicial system. Years later, evidence emerges that the alleged executed criminal was in fact a case of mistaken identity. It is in fact the difficulty of evidence that has occasioned sympathy for the alleged criminal (who might well be innocent) that has become, in my opinion, extended to the cases where evidence is clear, by the mere bracketing of the latter in the statutory abolition of the death penalty.

09-Sep-2011 21:50 PM

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