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The Death Penalty in the 21st Century

brown mallet on gray wooden surfaceIn the wee hours of today morning, the Nirbhaya rape convicts were hanged in Tihar Jail. The news took me back to 2012 when I was around ten years old and could barely understand the concept of rape. I remember sharing the public sentiment of "Hang the convicts, set an example!". Months and months passed. Years passed. Eight years later, as the convicts were hanged, the public went into a frenzy, #NirbhayaVerdict trended on Twitter, my friends and family celebrated the hanging of the scoundrels by posting screenshots of the news on Instagram and Facebook. At the same time, I couldn't help but revisit my Sociology Term Project for my ISC 2020 Boards, make a few changes and upload my lack of support for the existence of the death penalty. Here is an excerpt of my project - the arguments for and against as well as the conclusion. Do give it a read and if you still are not convinced, please read up more on the topic. You can also refer to a related blog post on The Difficulty of Equal Justice which can also be considered to be an argument to scrap the death penalty, in India, more than anywhere else since Equal Justice is non-existent.

Arguments for the death penalty

'A tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye'

The first and often the most prominent argument made by supporters of the death penalty is that when a murder is committed, it is fair to take the life of the murderer. It must be noted that this argument is limited to murder and support for capital punishment only in the case of murder.

The argument made is based on the principle of a ‘tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye’. The premise for this argument is that when the convict has violated the basic human right of a person (the right to life), it is justified to infringe the convict's right to live by killing them. Supporters believe that when one person violates another person’s basic right, there is no reason to grant them the same right, and the punishment meted out should ‘fit the crime’, which in this case means murder.


The second argument in favour of capital punishment is deterrence. If the death penalty is used to execute a criminal – say a rapist, when another individual may want to carry out such a crime that undoubtedly attacks the modesty of a person, it will make them sit back and think about the long term repercussion; the thought they have a chance of losing their life if caught may prevent them from committing such a crime. Those in support of Nirbhaya's rapist's hanging are in this boat.

The 'Greater Good'

The third argument on this side is more of a pre-emptive reply to a case that those who oppose the death penalty may put forward. It essentially says that it is fine if a small minority of those executed are innocent as it is more beneficial to society. What this means is that if Person A accused of raping someone is actually innocent, but the court pronounces A guilty and sentences them to death, it is alright because if not for Person A being killed, Person B, C, D and so on may also have raped other people and this would be more detrimental to society at large. In a nuthsell, if not for having wronglfully killed someone, many other rapes/ murders may have taken place. It is essentially an extension of the deterrence argument by saying that even those who have been wrongfully found guilty and killed, are in a way sacrifices for the greater good that we will achieve. *Scoffs*. Easy to say when the person being killed for the 'greater good' is not you!

Arguments against the death penalty

Justice is served even when the right to live exists

The principle argument on this side is to do with the right to life, irrespective of anything because most Constitutions guarantee this right and on a moral ground, it is humane for one to enjoy it. The argument made by those who are in favour of capital punishment is invalid because we do not live in a barbaric society where an eye can be taken for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. If a murder is committed, the opposition claims that the murderer’s life should also be taken, but it is not the case, for example, when one is assaulted or robbed. Further, the tooth for a tooth argument only involves murder but does not involve other crimes such as rape which can be considered equally heinous. If someone robs your house, justice is delivered when the guilty is/are arrested, has a fair trial and is locked up in jail according to existing law(s). Justice is NOT served by allowing you to go and rob his/her house in return or asking a professional government-appointed robber to rob his/her house unlike in the death penalty argument in which a State-appointed executor kills the convict.

Not a valid tool for deterrence

Opposers to the death penalty firmly believe that capital punishment is not an effective deterrent. In Canada, once the death penalty was abolished, the murder rate fell by 44% {1}. This makes it evident that capital punishment and deterrence are not related, and if anything, the abolishment of such a law can actually be more effective than its retention. I'll be fair. Claiming that the abolishment of this law is going to be an effective deterrent is also a stretch. However, the other point stands. The death penalty acts as no effective deterrent. It clearly shows that non-capital punishment related reasons are responsible for a lower homicide rate.

Think about it, India. Has the number of rapes gone down despite the publicity and media attention the Nirbhaya rape case got? Are you willing to place a bet with me today, that the number of rapes committed is going to fall, now that 'stern' action has been taken and 'justice' has been delivered? Historically, has the number of crimes committed fallen because of the death penalty? Do criminals really think about the 'long term repercussions' before acting? Do they even think that they will get caught before committing a crime?

Unjust and inefficient criminal justice systems

The next argument is to do with the unjust and often inefficient criminal justice systems around the world. Although many countries have an efficient justice system, many countries (including India) that follow capital punishment do not have a system that can ensure a fair and just trial. It is impossible to bring a person back to life after they have been convicted and hanged or lethally injected to end their life. Moreover, it is often the minority, the working class or marginalized groups who face punishment such as death and with a lack of availability of resources to good legal representation, they often find themselves struggling to at least have a fair trial.

Related article (must read for those who are still not convinced)


The aim of this post was to identify whether the death penalty is moral, justified and valid in the twenty-first century that we live in today.
On moral ground, it is pretty hard to justify the use of the death penalty, be it for petty crimes or heinous ones. In the case of petty crimes such as theft or assault, it clearly does not make sense to have capital punishment as a consequence. Both sides of the house agree.

On moral ground, it does not make sense for rapists to punished by death and instead should be punished with more rigorous jail sentences, after a fair trial. When it comes to murder, although the right to life of an individual has been violated, there is no point for a murderer to be killed as well because irrespective of crime being committed, even a murderer has the right to life. Moreover, contrary to public belief, it is actually cheaper to jail an individual rather than kill them {2}. Even if capital punishment supporters were to argue on the economic cost, it does not make sense to kill a convict. 

The twenty-first century is seen as one in which first world countries generally guarantee citizens their basic rights and on principle, executing an individual infringes their right to live. Even in the case of preventing crime, it has been made evident how capital punishment does not solve the problem. Even if one may argue that it provides closure for families, killing a person just to give closure is not valid at all. There are other ways to give closure – imprisoning them after a fair trial in which guilt is fairly and legally proven and ensuring that the opportunity for the convict to revisit the case and prove their innocence of wrongful conviction (if so the case), is one of them.

It is time we are rational, and not reactionary at every piece of so-called 'good' news!

Related reading:

Project 39(A)
The Difficulty of Equal Justice


  1. Good article Sanjith Rao. I wouldn't venture into is Death Penalty justified. For me, couple of things are important in a crime like this :
    1, The perpetrators should be brought to justice immediately. 7+ years is too long a period
    2. They should get a punishment - they should know that they would get caught, will be punished immediately ; They should 'be afraid to receive the punishment' and societal shame that'd be imposed on them.
    3. Therefore, all citizens will have the fear of the law

    There are probably few angles from where you need to consider this penalty :
    * What should this be for a rape ?
    * Would the woman ever get back what she lost ? If she was alive.. What would she wish
    * For the case in question - the family, lost a daughter on whom they had hope -She was a Medical student ; What would give solace to them ? Is it money ? Is it Capital Punishment to the perpetrators of the crime or is it any other punishment, considering they lost her daughter !
    * What would make the people committing such acts in the future

    To me the penalty should be immediate, be a deterrent and put the person committing the crime and his family to societal shame - This seems to me the right penalty

  2. Could it be that we're becoming a kinder and gentler nation? death penalty essay introduction


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