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  • Beryl Aidi

Is the Death Penalty Ever Justified? Part 3

Psychological paradigms

A man raising a placard that reads human rights.

Photo by Lara Jameson|Pexels

The death penalty remains detrimental to realization of just and humane societies. It is just as emotive as it is a contentious matter considering the high stakes involved. In part 2 of this discussion, we interrogated some of the legal and moral/religious arguments for the death penalty. In this last instalment, we grapple with some of the psychological paradigms and sociological outcomes of the death penalty as a form of punishment.


No closure

Riding on the back of equal justice for equal crime, proponents of the death penalty claim that it is the only way to truly serve justice and offer closure for the family members or friends of murder victims.  However, contrary to this claim, killing the person who killed their loved one does not really offer closure. Closure has evolved to be seen not just to meet the victim’s survivors’ needs but also as a form of justice.


While it is true that some family and friends of victims welcome the death penalty and even look forward to being present during the execution, there are myriads research reports based on interviews or testimonies of family members and friends who prefer the contrary. While seeking justice is their goal, they do not believe the death penalty is the answer.


One reason for reservation on the death penalty is the time it takes for the actual punishment to be carried out. The lengthy processes of appeals and counter appeals of the sentence often have the net effect of retraumatizing the families of the victim. 


For some, such as Bill and Denise Richard, whose 8-year-old son Martin was one of three people killed near the finish line in the March 2013 Boston marathon bombing, the continuous coverage of the matter puts the story of the perpetrator in the spotlight which forces them to “live story told on his terms…”. In essence it somehow forces them to relive that painful day instead of moving forward and rebuilding their lives.


Also, sometimes, the lengthy legal processes in the death penalty that end in a different verdict disenfranchises the victim’s survivors. There is no closure when cases drag on for years meanwhile the victim’s loved ones keep being reminded of what happened to them and in the end what is delivered is not justice because justice delayed is justice denied. According to EJUSA, “to be meaningful, justice should be swift and sure.”


Furthermore, the closure argument is a relatively recent development in the US, which according to The Crime Report is misleading and is not psychological but “a creature of popular culture, the media, victims’ advocacy groups, and the legal system.”


While it is very much in order to seek retribution, those with stakes in punishing the offenders use this argument as it is not easy to provide peace to the victims’ families and friends. Closure is not easy because for one, it seeks answers. Yet, ending the life of the one who ended one’s loved one’s life does not provide answers.


Closure in the death penalty discourse is relatively recent and still a very controversial concept. Scholars and practitioners do not have a common ground on what closure entails and the purpose it serves. It is also not easy to find one position on what really brings closure, what closure means or even when closure is achieved. While some argue that killing the murderer will bring the victim’s family closure others maintain that forgiveness brings closure. It is difficult to imagine asking someone whose life has been upended by the killing of their loved one just to forgive. It almost feels callous.

Sadly, executing the perpetrator cannot bring back the one whose life has been mercilessly taken away. Not executing the perpetrator does not necessarily mean forgiveness, it just means an alternative form of punishment and retribution. The question still remains what form of retribution would be sufficient or even be deterrent enough to be considered justice for the victims' survivors.

Not a crime deterrent

Amnesty International, one of the organizations well-known for campaign against the death penalty, asserts that the death penalty does not deter people from committing crime, arguing that is no evidence that the death penalty is more effective in reducing crime than life imprisonment.

Psychological traumas

Although many countries today do not practice the death penalty, a handful of countries still continue the practice. In Africa, it is encouraging that only 17 out of 54 countries still have the death penalty as a form of punishment. Of the 17 that have the death penalty, ten continue to hand death sentences with only two actively carrying out the death sentences.


The United States of America, however remains an anomaly. A modern society which prides itself as a champion for human rights, it is quite perplexing that it is one of the countries that still have the death penalty as a form of criminal punishment. Granted, the US is a federal government and therefore not every state maintains the death penalty, however, as a society, it should consider doing away with at a national level. A number of states have abolished, but the punishment still remains in some states, particularly the so-called Red States (Republican), which are supposed to espouse Christian values. It begs the question what their sense of justice is if they support such an archaic and barbaric practice.


What is appalling is that in the last days his presidency, Donald Trump ramped up the death penalty, reinstating the firing squad, one of the worst forms of punishment by death. Media reports in early 2023 carried stories of Trump planning to broaden offences punishable by the death penalty to include drug offences with a number of mostly right leaning states rushing to include the firing squad as a method of execution. His if he wins the 2024 elections may just mean abolition of the death penalty in the US may not even be on the table.


It is not that the lethal injection or the electric chair are any better as the result is the same- taking the life of a human being. The firing squad method is traumatic to the executioners who have to clean up after and to the family of the executed persons.


Ultimate and irreversible

The sad  and sobering reality about the death penalty execution is that it is ultimate and irreversible. Furthermore, no amount of remedy can correct an execution based on a wrongful conviction. This is why the morality of the death penalty critically questionable.

The death penalty figures are staggering, and we will never know how many people have been executed based on wrongful convictions. All we have to see is how many irreversible mistakes have been avoided by those who have been exonerated.

Right to life beyond moratoriums

Yet isn’t the right to life is supposed to be a fundamental right? All other rights are useless if one is denied this one right.

Most countries in Africa are abolitionists in practice simply because they have not carried out any executions. So rather than having these moratoriums which are in themselves not very reassuring, there should be abolition anchored in law. A country like Kenya, for instance, has not carried out any death executions since 1987 but courts continue to issue death sentences. It is not enough just to be a de facto abolitionist as matters not anchored in law are left to the whims of the government and president in power.


What is stopping the countries that are de facto abolitionists from moving forward with legal reforms and development of the law for the abolition of the death penalty?


Ultimately, there is no justification for the death penalty even if someone is guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt. Isn’t it time the death penalty became a thing of the past all over the world?



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