Capital Punishment, still a horror.




           by Kenneth Bagnell




          Albert Camus, the French philosopher of the 20th century, said many wise things, but the one that stays with me has to do with the death penalty, now being reconsidered. “Capital punishment,” he said, “is the most premediated of murders…”  Well said. Back in our younger years, a group of us formed a speaking group, going from city to city, town to town, to speak mostly to service clubs, advocating prohibition of the death penalty. (The McMurtry brothers, both lawyers and Progressive Conservatives, were at the heart of it.) The United Church Observer, where I was then Managing Editor, had the courage to solicit every Ottawa MP, asking which way he or she was inclined on the question. (It was close, but it leaned toward abolition.) To top it all off, as I recall, the McMurtrys brought to Canada, a highly respected American criminologist, Thorsten Sellin, to speak publically on why it was time to abolish the death penalty. It was, he said, both horrible and futile. (It was abolished in 1963.)    

        The first serious study of capital punishment anywhere was by Professor Sellin, and took place in the mid to late 1950s. His career was as a university scholar, mainly as a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. He thereby became the country’s pioneer criminologist using social and scientific methodology. One of his first gestures was to see that governments were made responsible for seeing to it that crime statistics were gathered and kept secure. Then he took other steps: first his scholarly gathering of the numerous issues the death penalty had; then he built a system of statistics that would reflect the impact of the crime in general.

       Thus Prof. Sellin applied his joint combination of methods – qualitative and quantitative – in what his observers called, “an exhaustive study of capital punishment in the American states”. He is said to have used every scrap of data that was available putting it together with his knowledge of the history, economics and social structure of each state. He then compared this state to that state in terms of its affluence and its poverty. It was an enormous task. But in the end it’s said he came to the “inevitable conclusion that executions have no discernable effect on homicide rates.”  Thus, one of the era’s greatest criminologists revealed infallible evidence that execution doesn’t decline murder rates. 

       Hence, Stephen Harper, the former leader of the Conservative party was off track when he alluded to his intention to bring about capital punishment. It doesn’t work.  Nevertheless there are still rumblings that, should the reactionary Conservative party – still seeking a leader – ever return to office, the death penalty will likely be on the agenda. He left no doubt he favors it, having said publically, that “there are times where capital punishment is appropriate.” He followed that statement with a bizarre sequence, saying that despite his confidence in it, he had no intention of bringing it up in the next parliament. Clearly he was just playing both sides of the issue. Much more insightful and honorable was the statement made shortly after by Liberal Stephane Dion who left no doubt where he, and his party stood: “The death penalty is not something that should be done in a civilized society because civilized society is looking for justice not for vengeance.” Great!  He’s clear and candid and absolutely right.

    Virtually every criminologist will agree with Dion and for obvious reasons: they know what they aren’t searching about. It’s truly pathetic that a country with world renowned universities – Harvard, Yale, UCLA and so on – goes along with the bingo crowd when it comes to promoting capital punishment. A full 32 states are ready to execute whenever appropriate.  Here they are: Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Nevada, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Ohio, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming.

     Naturally, on an issue with such a profound moral dimension, the moral and spiritual aspect is at its heart. An incident, back in 2011, in the state of Georgia, a black man, Troy Davis was executed, with many doubters, from Pope Benedict and Jimmy Carter and even more, elected men and women who lived in countries which did not have execution as the possible penalty. The Troy execution was surrounded with doubters, including the European Foreign Policy Chief. No DNA supported the incident, and for several hours, after his death, prominent people raised their voices in collective anger. Jimmy Carter, the man of  wisdom and integrity, added his rare public indignation: “We hope this tragedy will spur us as a nation toward the total rejection of capital punishment.”




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1 Comment

  1. J Hickman
    May 6, 2017

    Aside from the vengeance angle, capital punishment is an abomination for another reason: the possibility that an innocent person who did not commit the crime will be executed. If Canada still had the death penalty, a number of wrongfully convicted men — including Guy Paul Morin and David Milgaard — would have been murdered by the justice system. How many innocent Canadians have died this way in the past?