The Death Penalty: Flawed Justice

February 26, 2012 12:29 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

The recent conviction of Carl Whant for the rape and murder of Nikitta Grender has certainly struck an emotive chord with anyone reading the details of the case.

The night of the incident Whant had attended a party with his best friend and cousin Ryan Mayes. Whant had left the party at some point in the early hours and driven to the flat belonging to Mayes partner, Grender. What followed was a sickening and brutal attack on Grender in which she was raped, stabbed in the stomach and her throat was slit. Whant then attempted to cover up his crime by setting fire to the flat and her body. Grender was due to give birth in two weeks and in stabbing her in the stomach Whant had also killed her unborn child. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison for murder, rape and child destruction.

Following cases such as this you will often hear a public conscience stuttering into life, with people tripping over themselves to condemn the convicted to a life of torture, misery and death.

Much of the venom is also aimed at the British legal system and the absence of a death penalty – how the reintroduction of executions may prevent animals like Whant ever considering committing such a terrible crime. Of course, the death penalty will also serve another purpose: Retribution and vengeance against those who are convicted of the most heinous of offences.

Indeed, such a crime as that committed against Grender could sway even the most liberal “loony left” activist into considering execution as a punishment. Imagine if that was your girlfriend or sister. What would you want? Could you accept that Whant will spend the next 35 years in prison, enjoying the privilege of life (at a cost of over £40,000 per annum), or would you want to see his life taken from him, the same as he took that of Grender’s and her unborn child.

Many will already know how they would answer the above question, however reason should prevail and reintroduction of the death penalty is not something to be taken lightly. Pitchforks are all too quickly distributed by a reliably sensationalist media, who stoke the embers of an appalled public into a fervour and encourage a vitriolic campaign of hatred. Reactionary justice is not the answer; we only need to look towards our neighbours across the Atlantic to see how that has worked out.

Legal in all but 14 US states, the death penalty has enjoyed a morbid popularity amongst citizens over the years. At its peak in 1994, 80 per cent of the population supported executions, however by 2011 this had dropped to 61 per cent. Although most support the punishment in cases of murder, this drops substantially where there is an option for life without parole.

The high-profile campaign for Troy Davis, who was sentenced to death in 1991 for the murder of a Police Officer, has highlighted the flaws in using the death penalty as a sentencing alternative.

Davis always maintained his innocence, and compelling evidence has come to light since his conviction that may support his claims. No DNA evidence linked Davis to the crime and the prosecution was entirely built around witness evidence. However, since Davis’ conviction seven of the nine witnesses have recanted their statements stating that they were coerced into them by the police.

One of the remaining witnesses is Sylvester Coles.

Coles has been accused by others of being the killer himself, and new evidence has since come forward that could prove that it is him, and not Davis who is guilty of the murder.

Support for the Davis campaign came from all areas of society, including a former chief of the FBI, former US President Jimmy Carter and Pope Benedict XVI. There have been appeals for the White House to intervene and worldwide protests condemning what appeared to be a massive miscarriage of justice. Almost one million people signed an appeal from Amnesty International to halt the impending execution.

Unfortunately, despite the efforts of thousands, Davis was executed by authorities on September 21 2011 in Georgia, USA. He leaves a legacy of opposition against the death penalty, and a stark reminder to law-makers of the problems behind such an antiquated means of justice.

Since 1973, 140 prisoners have been exonerated from death row in the US after it was found that they were innocent. These 140 were going to be executed for crimes that they did not commit. How many innocent prisoners have been executed that we don’t know about? Furthermore, there have been three executions in the UK (prior to abolition) where the individuals were later found to be innocent.

If we are to consider introduction of the death penalty into the British legal system there are clearly a number of considerations to make. If someone is found guilty then they are guilty “beyond all reasonable doubt”.

But what if mistakes are made? We are only human after all.

What if you are Davis, taking that last lonely walk from your cell surrounded by silent guards? Strapped to a table and asked if you have any final words before you die? You know that you are innocent, but you have been convicted and are therefore guilty in everyone else’s eyes.

I am not an apologist for Whant, and I believe that there could be an argument for individuals who carry out a pre-meditated attack such as his to face capital punishment. However, a blanket introduction of the death penalty is not the answer to the UK’s social problems.

Our legal system is not watertight and it is too easy for mistakes to be made and for innocent people to die.

Lessons need to be learnt from the past.

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This post was written by Chris Bath

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