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February 3rd last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the execution of Ronald Ryan (1925 – 1967), the last man to be hanged in Australia. Since then, the general consensus has been that the death penalty constitutes a cruel and unusual punishment. Contrarily, however, it is the opinion of this author that the death penalty is not only just, but a key part of any justice system.
There are two main arguments against the death penalty. First, that it is an exceptionally expensive form of punishment. And second, that the death penalty leaves no room for non-posthumous exoneration.
The first argument is one of economics, not of morality or of justice. It does not argue that the death penalty is immoral, only that it is expensive. What this argument suggests is that a price tag can be placed on justice. That the most important factor determining a case is not whether justice is served, but how much money it will cost.
The way a society punishes murder is reflective of the value that society places on a human life. The life of a human being is not something that can have a time-based value placed upon it. It is something that has immeasurable value and purpose. The Norwegian mass-murderer, Anders Breivik, a man responsible for the death of seventy-seven people, received a sentence of just twenty-one years for his heinous crimes. A society that decides that the value of an individual’s life amounts to only one-hundred days is one that has no respect for the sanctity of life.
The second argument carries a great deal more weight. It is an undeniable fact that innocent people have, and continue to be, executed for crimes they did not commit. In the United States, prejudice against African Americans, Jews, Catholics, homosexuals, and other people often meant that justice was not as blind as it should have been. Furthermore, in an era before DNA evidence, convictions were based upon less reliable physical evidence and eyewitness testimony. And such evidence naturally carried a higher rate of false convictions.
There are two problems with the innocence argument. First, the advent of DNA along with other advances in forensic science has meant that the possibility of executing an innocent person is very low. DNA may not be foolproof, but when combined with eyewitness testimony and additional physical evidence, it makes a guilty verdict all the more concrete.
Second, the innocence argument is not an argument against the death penalty. Rather, it is an argument against executing an innocent person. It only applies when the condemned man is not actually guilty of the crime he has been convicted of. What it does not address is how a person whose guilt is certain beyond all possible reasonable doubt ought to be treated. When an individual’s guilt is that certain the innocence argument no longer carries any weight.
There are two primary arguments for the death penalty. First, that there are crimes so heinous and criminals so depraved that the only appropriate response is the imposition of the death penalty. And second, that the death penalty is an essential aspect of a just and moral justice system.
That there are crimes so heinous, and criminals so depraved, that they deserve the death penalty is self-evident. Carl Panzram (1892 – 1930), a thief, burglar, arsonist, rapist, sodomite, and murderer, told his executioner: “hurt it up, you Hoosier bastard, I could kill a dozen men while you’re screwing around.” Peter Kürten (1883 – 1931), also known as the Vampire of Düsseldorf, told his executioner that to hear the sound of his own blood gushing from his neck would be “the pleasure to end all pleasures.” Finally, John Wayne Gacy, Jr. (1942 – 1994) was convicted of forcibly sodomising, torturing, and strangling thirty-three boys and young men. The question, then, is not whether or not any individual deserves the death penalty, it is whether or not the state should have the power to execute someone.
The answer to this question is undoubtedly yes. It is frequently forgotten, especially by humanitarians, that the key aspect of a criminal penalty is not rehabilitation or deterrence, but punishment.
In other words, what makes a justice system just is that it can convict a person fairly and impose on them a penalty that is commensurate with the nature and severity of the crime that person has committed. What separates the death penalty from extra-judicial murder is that the condemned person has been afforded all the rights and protections of law, including due process, a fair and speedy trial, the right to trial by jury, the presumption of innocence, and so forth, regardless of their race, religion, sexuality, or gender. When a sentence of death is imposed upon a murderer, it is not a case of an individual or group of individuals taking vengeance, but of a legitimate court of justice imposing a penalty in accordance with the law.
What makes the death penalty an integral part of any justice system is not that it constitutes a form of revenge (which it does not) or that it may deter other individuals from committing similar crimes (which it also does not). What makes it just is that constitutes a punishment that fits the crime that has been committed.
This week for our weekly cultural article we will be examining the David Lean’s (1908 – 1991) 1946 film Great Expectations, considered to be one of the greatest British films ever made. When it was released in 1946, it was met with glowing reviews. Today, seventy years later, it has been described by Criterion as “one of the greatest translations of literature into film.”
David Lean’s Great Expectations captures the essence of Charles Dicken’s (1812 – 1870) literary genius by juxtaposing his memorable characters with the artful film direction of David Lean. Leans use of black and white to add to the foreboding and melancholy atmosphere of the film. Then there are the numerous dark, creepy, rundown, and ultimately human locations that burn themselves into the memory: the creepy graveyard where a young Pip first meets escaped convict Abel Magwitch, the Kentish marshes, Miss Havisham’s dilapidated and macabre home whose clocks are stopped at the exact time Miss Havisham learnt of her fiance’s betrayal, 19th century London, Mr. Jagger’s offices whose walls are decorated with the death masks of defendants lost to the gallows, the prison where Magwitch dies, and so forth.
Then there are the wealth of memorable characters the film presents to us. The most notable of these is Pip through whom we see all of the tragedy and injustice of early 19th century England. Pip acts as more of an observer to the world around him than an actual protagonist. We first meet Pip (Anthony Wager, 1932 – 1990) as a young orphan being raised by his overbearing older sister (Freda Jackson, 1907 – 1990) and her kindly blacksmith husband (Bernard Miles, 1907 – 1991). It is during this time that Pip first encounters Abel Magwitch (Finlay Currie, 1878 – 1960), a kind yet ultimately decent escaped convict, in the cemetery, and when his heart is broken by the coquettish Estella (Jean Simmons, 1929 – 2010) and the dishevelled and deranged Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt, 1900 – 1969).
As the film progresses, we see Pip grow into a young man, played by John Mills (1908 – 2005), who, it could be argued, was perhaps a little too old to play Pip in his early twenties. This Pip has been bequeathed a large allowance by an unknown benefactor and travels to London with the view of becoming a gentleman. There he forms a friendship with the Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness, 1914 – 2000) who helps him refine his manners. The adult Pip finds himself corrupted by the ponce and ceremony of the English upper-class and is ashamed to admit that he would have paid money to keep Joe Gargery, dressed in his cheap suit and awkward manner, away. Pip is forced to reexamine his views after discovering that his benefactor is none other than the escaped convict Magwitch, who was so struck by Pip’s childhood compassion that he was inspired to make something of himself and become his benefactor. Magwitch’s kindness and gratitude cause Pip to regain his lost humanity.
Great expectations represents a type of film that no longer exists: one that deals entirely with the human condition. These films are no longer made because they often do not involve exciting elements, but rather present characters that are flawed and suffering and places these characters in stories that are essentially tragic in nature. These films are no longer made because they do not fit into the blockbuster formula. Rather than the larger-than-life heroes of the blockbuster, films on the human condition feature characters that are ultimately flawed and suffering. These characters are placed in stories that are ultimately tragic in their nature. A far cry from the often over-the-top plots of the modern blockbuster. There is something deeply satisfying about films like Great Expectations which shows normal people to be capable of leading a dignified existence regardless of the tragedy and suffering they are forced to face.