Everybody may not love a good hanging but most people love talking about a good hanging, or alternatively, a frying, beheading, or lethal injection. The death penalty is one of those subjects upon which most people are willing to express strong opinions.
When United Nations resolution (GA-3) in favour of abolishing the death penalty was introduced, 110 nations voted for abolition, 36 abstained and 39 voted against abolition. India (which favours hanging), China (which shoots), US (which sometimes offers the condemned the difficult choice between electrocution or lethal injection) and Saudi Arabia (which beheads, and occasionally crucifies the corpse) were among the 39 voting to retain the death penalty.
The Kasab execution more or less coincided with GA-3 and led to a focus on it. But despite wanting to retain the death penalty, India actually carries out few executions through judicial process (encounters are different). There are currently about 300 prisoners on Indian death rows at various stages of the appeals process. In theory, they could all get the rope. But there have been only three hangings, including that of Kasab, since 1995. Pratibha Patil commuted many death sentences during her tenure as president.
This restraint contrasts with earlier years. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) cites data from the 1967 report of the Law Commission of India to back claims that at least 1,422 executions took place between 1953 and 1963. There is no easy way to know how many executions occurred in toto between 1947 and 1994 since National Crime Records Bureau data only date back till 1995.
In 1983, the Supreme Court suggested that death sentence should be handed out only in the rarest of rare cases. However, the number of offences deserving the death penalty was also expanded, even as actual executions declined. A large-scale drug trafficker could get the chop now, for instance.
There are many reasons cited in favour of and against the death penalty. Advocates say that it has a deterrent effect and that it avoids wasting resources in keeping murderers incarcerated. It also offers society closure when a heinous crime is committed — a euphemistic way to say an execution is sanctioned revenge. The opponents point out that it is a massive violation of human rights.
In practice, most nations have elaborate appeals processes, which means that a condemned criminal spends a lengthy, indeterminate time on death row. So expense is scarcely saved. It’s also difficult to make the case for deterrent by citing data. It may be argued that places with high murder rates need the death penalty more and that the crime rate would be even higher if the penalty didn’t exist. Most nations with the death penalty do have high murder rates and some also have poor human rights records. Iran and Saudi Arabia award death for sorcery, adultery and apostasy. The People’s Republic of China shoots financially corrupt officials.
The US is a rich repository of data. Some US states execute; some don’t. The penalty has also been repealed and reinstated in some states. The murder rate is higher in some states with the death penalty than in some states without it. States that have tinkered with repeal also don’t seem to have seen much change in murder rates alongside repeals and/or reinstatements.
The key argument, to my mind, is that investigative procedures and judicial processes are imperfect everywhere. A Kasab – that is, somebody unquestionably guilty – is a rare bird in criminal jurisprudence. Amnesty International and other human rights groups cite multiple instances across nations where the wrong person was convicted and given the death penalty.
There isn’t much point in retrospectively pardoning somebody after execution. There is no way that error can be eliminated so completely as to ensure that only the guilty receive death sentences. Under those circumstances, hemp is better put to other uses.