Saturday, May 13, 2006

Death Penalty Thailand: Call for Abolition

Nation, 13th May 2006

Time is ripe to abolish capital punishment in the Kingdom

This is a celebratory year for Thailand, and it would be a momentous achievement to crown the across-the-board progress we've achieved over the past 60 years if we were to renounce capital punishment. I realise many people, perhaps even the majority, would initially object, fearing the worst.

It is not surprising that Europe has taken the lead in banning capital punishment, the culmination of centuries of struggle for justice and equality that began with religious toleration and the Enlightenment and has led to present humane views.

But it wasn't that long ago that hundreds of crimes in England - even what are now petty ones, like stealing a loaf of bread - were capital offences. As protests were raised against this injustice, the idea of capital punishment meted out for many crimes became repellent. In a relatively brief period, Europe has reduced to zero the number of capital offences.

Thailand's experience has not been the same, of course. But we have succeeded in reducing capital punishment to only a few offences; I feel we can telescope the rest of the European experience without further delay and arrive at the same consensus.

As Buddhists from all around the world gather in Bangkok, it would be fitting if a voice among them were raised in support of this idea of compassion and reverence for life, which, after all, their founder espoused thousands of years ago.

Trirat Petchsingh


Saturday, May 06, 2006

Death Penalty Thailand: Response to 'Morality of Capital Punishment'

The Nation: 7th May 2006

While The Nation is to be praised in raising the issue of capital punishment, which has great relevance to the Thai justice system, there are questions to be asked from a Thai perspective about opinions based on another culture. Capital punishment is rightly strongly debated within the US, but elements of that debate tend to dominate discussion elsewhere.
Gary Becker is a well known contributor to the debate and his usual stand is to discuss the economics of capital punishment. Well and good, for he is an economist. However, while retaining the core of his earlier arguments, he now writes under the banner of ‘morality’, and while economics is as remote from morality as physics or chemistry, we are still reminded that he is a Nobel Laureate in economics. Well, every man is entitled to his opinion, but it has little to do with morality. While rightly excluding ‘revenge and other possible motives’ he supports capital punishment only because he believes that it deters other murders. To contest this argument we would have to enter into the context of the US crime scene. Those more familiar with the practical aspects of crime in the US assert that, even in premeditated murder,
motivation does not depend on a balancing of the severity of capital punishment against the urge to kill. The belief of Becker is also contested by the results of a US research poll in 1995 which showed that the majority of police chiefs do not believe that the death penalty is an effective deterrent.
The views of Becker are opposed by other academics in the US who have access to related crime and judicial data. However, even at this distance from the scene, one can reject the non sequitur of Becker’s arguments: “Opponents of capital punishment frequently proclaim that the state has no moral right to take anyone’s life…. Yet that is absolutely the wrong conclusion for anyone who believes that capital punishment deters”.
“Absolutely”! And as far as moral argument goes, this is a mere repetition of the inadmissible principle that the end justifies the means.
But the most serious fault in Becker’s article follows his admission of worry about the risk of executing the innocent and his highly ingenuous statement that “there are very few, if any, documented cases of innocent people being killed”. If he cared to look he would have found documented cases. But it is true that there is little effort or resource to prove the innocence of those already executed. Instead, there is the declared innocence of 122 people waiting execution on death row. Becker excludes these people from his conclusion arguing that their exoneration mostly on DNA related evidence is a proof that the innocent escape execution. But how many others were not exonerated when the majority on death row do not have effective legal representation and when normal legal procedure leads inexorably to execution. And what of cases of conviction where there is no available DNA evidence? Of greater authority than Becker are the actions of Governor G. H. Ryan of Illinois who declared a moratorium on execution when he found that 13 of those on death row in his state were innocent; or the declaration of US District Judge Rakoff of New York that the federal death penalty is unconstitutional and violative of due process because it creates “an undue risk of executing innocent people”

Reflecting on the application of Becker’s ideas to Thailand we might propose that the danger of wrongful execution is certainly greater where confessions under torture are prevalent and where access to DNA evidence to exonerate the innocent is certainly extremely limited. Nevertheless, his affirmation that capital punishment should be limited to cases of murder is a worthy reminder that execution for drug crimes is not justifiable. Confident in the ‘enormous protection’ of the appeals process in the US he would also be appalled by the practice of extrajudicial execution. For the rest, the debate is best left to those who can and do counter Becker’s arguments on their local relevance.
Danthong Breen
Union for Civil Liberty
109 Suthisarnwinitchai Road
Samsennok, Huaykwang

Morality of Capital Punishment

Nation 6th May 2006

*The morality of capital punishment*

European governments are adamantly opposed to capital punishment - the European Union bans it outright - and some Europeans consider its use i the United States barbaric. Indeed, many European intellectuals argue that not just capital punishment, but also punishment in general, does not deter criminals.

But whereas Europeans, with crime rates well below American rates for the past half-century, could long afford to be relatively "soft" on most crimes, they have seen their crime rates increase sharply during the past 20 years. By contrast, American rates have fallen, in part because of greater use of punishment.

This includes capital punishment. I support executing some peopleconvicted of murder, because - and only because - I believe that it deters other murders. If I did not believe that, I would oppose capital punishment, because revenge and other possible motives should not be a basis for public policy.

Serious empirical research on capital punishment in the US began with a pioneering study by Isaac Ehrlich, published in 1975 in The American Economic Review. Some subsequent studies have sometimes found a much weaker deterrent effect, while others have found a much stronger effect. The available data are quite limited, however, so one should not base any conclusions solely on the econometric evidence. Of course, public policy on any punishment cannot wait until the evidence is perfect. But even with the limited quantitative evidence available, there are good reasons to believe that capital punishment deters. Most people, and murderers in particular, fear death, especially when it follows swiftly and with considerable certainty following the commission of a murder. As David Hume put it in discussing suicide: "No man ever threw away life, while it was worth keeping. For such is our natural horror of death." Likewise, Arthur Schopenhauer believed: "As soon as the terrors of life reach a point at which they outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put an end to his life. But the terrors of death offer considerable resistance."

Opponents of capital punishment frequently proclaim that the state has no moral right to take anyone's life, including that of the most reprehensible murderer. Yet that is absolutely the wrong conclusion for anyone who believes that capital punishment deters. To see why, suppose that for each murderer executed (instead of, say, receiving life imprisonment), the number of murders is reduced by three, which is a much lower number than Ehrlich's and some other estimates of the deterrent effect. This implies that for each murderer not executed, three innocent victims would die. In fact, the government would indirectly be "taking" many lives if it did not use capital punishment.

Saving three innocent lives for every person executed seems like a very attractive trade-off, and even two lives saved per execution seems like a persuasive benefit-cost ratio for capital punishment. Admittedly, however, the argument in favour of capital punishment becomes less clear-cut as the number of lives saved per execution falls. But even ifonly one life were saved per execution, the trade-off might still be desirable if the life saved were much better than the life taken, which would usually be the case.

Many object to comparing the quality of the life spared and the life taken. Yet I do not see how to avoid such a comparison. Consider a career criminal who robs and kills a victim who led a decent life and left several children and a spouse behind. Suppose it would be possible to save the life of an innocent victim by executing such a criminal. To me, it is obvious that saving such a victim's life must count for more than taking the criminal's life. Obviously, not all cases are so unambiguous, but a comparison of the qualities of individual lives must be part of any reasonable social policy.

This helps explain why capital punishment should be used only for murders and not for lesser crimes. When the trade-off is between taking lives and, say, reducing property theft, the case for milder punishments is far stronger. Although severe assaults, including some gruesome rapes, may approach some murders in severity and conceivably call for capital punishment, I do not support its use in these cases.

A powerful argument for reserving capital punishment for murders is "marginal deterrence". If assault were punished with execution, perpetrators would have an incentive to kill their victims to avoid discovery (which is a major reason why the severity of punishments more generally should be matched to the severity of crimes).

One complication is that capital punishment may make a murderer fight harder to avoid being captured, which could lead to more deaths. But while marginal deterrence is important, I believe the resistance of murderers to being captured, possibly at the expense of their own lives,is really indirect evidence that criminals do fear capital punishment.

Of course, I worry about the risk of executing the innocent. My support for capital punishment would weaken greatly if the rate of killing innocent people were as large as that claimed by many. However, I believe that the appeals process in the US offers enormous protection, not so much against wrongful conviction as against wrongful execution, so that there are very few, if any, documented cases of innocent people being killed. And this process has been strengthened enormously with the development of DNA identification.

Again, the debate about capital punishment is essentially a debate about deterrence (which may be reduced by lengthy appeals). I can understand that some people are sceptical about the evidence, although I believe they are wrong about both that and the common sense of the issue. It is very disturbing to take someone's life, even a murderer's life; but sometimes, highly unpleasant actions are necessary to prevent even worse behaviour that takes the lives of innocent victims.

Gary Becker is a Nobel laureate in economics and professor of economics and sociology at the University of Chicago in Illinois.

Gary Becker