Capital Punishment

This is an argument in for the use of capital punishment in some circumstances. The logic applies whether one takes an atheistic or theistic viewpoint.

Which is more morally acceptable: killing someone or letting two people die unnecessarily through inaction?

Electric Chair     Girl and Vulture

Ivan Milat

Ivan Milat was born near Sydney, Australia in 1944, one of 14 children. The 10 boys in the family spent a lot of time handling knives and firearms and were well known to the police. Ivan liked to attack animals with machetes and this led to a stint in residential school at age 13. By 17, he was in juvenile detention for theft and at 19 was involved in a shop break-in. In 1964 he was sentenced to 18 months for breaking and entering. A month after being released he received two years hard labour for driving a stolen car. Then in 1967 he was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for theft.

Ivan Milat              

Ivan Milat                  

In 1971 he abducted two 18-year old female hitch-hikers with a knife. He raped one before they managed to escape. While awaiting trial, he was involved in a string of robberies with some of his brothers, then disappeared.

In 1977 Milat unsuccessfully attempted to rape and murder two more female hitch-hikers.

Between 1989 and 1992, several backpackers disappeared after hitch-hiking from Sydney. In 1992 and 1993, their bodies were discovered in the Belanglo Forest west of Sydney. Joanne Walters had been stabbed fifteen times in the chest, neck, and back. Her travelling companion, Caroline Clarke had been shot 10 times in the head. James Gibson and Deborah Evarist were the next two. A large knife had been used to cut through Gibson's spine, paralysing him. Evarist had been savagely beaten, her skull and jaw fractured. Simone Schmidl had been stabbed 8 times. Anja Habschied was decapitated, though her head was never found; her partner Gabor Neugebauer had been shot six times in the head.

Milat was arrested in May 1994 and charged with the murders. He was also suspected of other similar muders elsewhere in Australia. Various knives and firearms were found in his house and and in the homes of his mother and some of his brothers. Belongings of some of the victims were also found.

In July 1996, after an 18-week trial, he was found guilty of seven back-packer murders and sentenced to several life terms without parole.

Milat spent from 1996 to 2019 in various high-security jails before dying of oesophageal cancer.

Keeping a prisoner in maximum security presently costs the state about $400 per day. Over the 23 years of Milat's incarceration, this would come to some 3.4 million dollars.

The Anti-Malaria Foundation (AMF) reduces the incidence of malaria in third-world countries by distributing mosquito nets and other measures. The cost of operations in the African country of Guinea is estimated to be US$4500 per life saved. (https://www.givewell.org/how-much-does-it-cost-to-save-a-life) There are insufficient funds to cover everyone. For every $4500 available, an extra death from malaria can be avoided.

The AU$3.4 million cost of Ivan Milats stay in prison comes to about US$2.3 million. Dividing this by $4500, we get a little over 500. Thus, had Ivan Milat been executed and the money spent on him donated to the AMF, 500 lives could have been saved.

Milat's 23 years in jail would have been worth very little to him and nothing to anyone else. Yet this life was considered to be worth more than those of 500 Guineans, most of whom would have been quite good people who never murdered anyone. Letting 500 good people die seems to be preferable to taking one life.

Some might say that Australia needs to look after its own first. But still, saying that the life of one Australian serial killer is worth more than the lives of 500 good Guineans is racism in the extreme.

Acid Attacks

Acid attacks are common in Southern Asia. An acid attack consists of throwing a corrosive liquid (usually concentrated sulphuric or nitric acid into the face of the victim. The effects of the acid are detailed in the following extract from the Wikipedia article on acid attacks.

  • The skull is partly destroyed/deformed and hair lost.
  • Ear cartilage is usually partly or totally destroyed; deafness may occur.
  • Eyelids may be burned off or deformed, leaving the eyes extremely dry and prone to blindness. Acid directly in the eye also damages sight, sometimes causing blindness in both eyes.
  • The nose can become shrunken and deformed; the nostrils may close off completely due to destroyed cartilage.
  • The mouth becomes shrunken and narrow, and it may lose its full range of motion. Sometimes, the lips may be partly or totally destroyed, exposing the teeth. Eating and speaking can become difficult.
  • Scars can run down from the chin to the neck area, shrinking the chin and extremely limiting the range of motion in the neck.
  • Inhalation of acid vapors usually creates respiratory problems, exacerbating restricted airway pathways in acid patients.

Apart from the pain and horror of the attack, the months in hospital and the permanent, often grotesque disfigurement that follows, in many cases the victim is left with little hope of marriage or gaining decent employment, a situation which can make life very difficult in a places where acid attacks are common.

Most acid attacks are committed against young women in revenge for refusal of sexual advances or proposals of marriage.

In Bangla Desh the number of acid attacks rose steadily until 2002. In that year the Acid Survivors Foundation reported 494 cases. Also, that year the death penalty was introduced for perpetrators. By 2020 the number of reported attacks had fallen to 21, while in other countries, numbers continued to rise. Only 14 people were sentenced to death for acid attacks between 2002 and 2020. But clearly, the existence of the death penalty has acted as an effective deterrent and has saved the livelihoods of hundred of people per year.

Many people will maintain that the death penalty is inhumane and should not be used under any circumstances. But, again, is it better to allow a few hundred acid attacks each year or to execute less than one perpetrator per year?

People are products of their genetics and their experience. It can be said that a criminal is as much a victim of circumstances as their victim. So punishment should not be for revenge. But deterrence is important.

Map Showing the Status of Capital Punishment in Different Countries

Capital Punishment Map

Capital Punishment Legend

Do We Have the Right to Take a Life?

The most common objection to capital punishment is that no human has the right to take the life of another human. (Though there is generally no problem with wilfully letting other humans die.) If there is no god, then it is humans who decide what rights humans have and we are quite able to give ourselves that right. After all, we give ourselves the right to kill enemy combatants in war and we deny ourselves the right to discriminate on the basis of sex.

But what if there is a god? Some object to capital punishment on biblical grounds because of the commandment 'Thou shalt not commit murder'. But not all cases of killing another human are murder. God ordered the Israelites to kill thousands of people for misdemeanours like cursing one's parents, divination, worshipping other gods, working on the sabbath, male homosexual acts etc., as well as just for being Canaanites and being in possession of the land the Israelites wanted. God obviously has no qualms about us killing people for misdemeanours, some much more minor than serial killings or acid attacks.

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Image Acknowledgements
Electric Chair: Wikimedia Commons
Girl and Vulture: David Erickson, flickr.com
Ivan Milat: Wikipedia
Map: Wikimedia Commons