Death penalty has no room for mistakes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 January, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 January, 2000, 12:00am

The phrase 'This court hereby sentences the defendant to death' is no longer heard in SAR courts as the death penalty has been abolished, but it certainly is not uncommon in some countries, including the mainland.

The death penalty, imposed for the most serious crimes when it is felt no other punishment could do justice to the victim, continues to be an integral part of the legal systems of a few countries.

And since the forefront of any legal system is fairness and justice, that is, by making the wrongdoer pay for his actions and by deterring people from committing crime, how better is justice served than this? Perhaps this line of argument needs to be taken slightly further if it is to make any sense. Individuals need to know that hurting other human beings could result in their own lives being taken away.

In a world where violence is not uncommon and people expect their individual rights to be protected, this solution seems to be an acceptable one.

However, is this really the model that ought to be followed? After all, the basic purpose of penal theory is to rehabilitate rather than punish the offender. Clearly, by imposing the death penalty on an offender, he or she is not given this opportunity. Does every individual not deserve a second chance? Perhaps more importantly, its critics argue that it is 'cruel and inhumane' to take away an individual's right to life. Moreover, they claim there is no real evidence of deterrence.

Indeed, it may have been situational factors rather than human nature that led to the accused's behaviour.

It is said that long-term imprisonment is just as severe a punishment psychologically as is the death penalty. Besides, it has the advantage of the possibility of reversibility and reduction.

If after the trial some important evidence in favour of the wrongdoer is discovered, his sentence may be reduced or overturned, thus making it a fairer one. With the death penalty, there is no way back.

Most countries around the world have abolished the death penalty. The legal systems that still carry the penalty will no doubt soon have to give some thought to it and make a decision.

The issue really at hand is that of justice. Is justice served by taking away the life of the offender (a gift given by God) or is justice served by providing him with rehabilitation, so that every individual is given the opportunity to be his best and overcome his past outrage? Ms Chugani and Mr Wu are third year students at the Faculty of Law, University of Hong Kong