On Capital Punishment

“Even the very wise cannot see all ends” – J.R.R Tolkien

          As a young boy, I have always been fond of the works of J.R.R Tolkien. Stories of adventure, glory, and chivalry have never failed to pique my interest. I always felt that his writings, specifically the Lord of the Rings, instilled in me some sense of virtue. In particular, there is one scene in the trilogy that has always intrigued me. In Chapter Two of The Fellowship of the Ring, the main character, Frodo Baggins, speaks to his mentor, Gandalf, an old, wise, and powerful wizard. They speak of Gollum, one of the main antagonists in the story who is described as a vile and wretched creature that has “fallen to the darkness” and now serves the dark lord. Frodo exclaims that it was a pity that his Uncle Bilbo did not kill Gollum during their past encounter, to which Gandalf firmly responds:

‘Pity? It is pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play in it, for good or evil, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.’

          It is this scene that first comes to mind whenever the issue of capital punishment is brought up. After all, who are we, as human beings, with all our personal flaws and imperfections, to decide that one’s life must be brought to an end? Is the state not a reflection of its own citizens? Should we not, as good citizens of our nation, hold the state to the same moral standard as we do the individual? Regardless, there are many that still believe that capital punishment is the only way to hinder potential felons from committing crimes and thus keep them safe from harm. Some also believe that the death penalty is the only way for families of murder or rape victims to receive the justice that is due to them.

Photo by Nikhil Prasad on Unsplash

          In The Philippines, for instance, the issue of capital punishment is one that is extremely relevant in the country’s current socio-political atmosphere. Many in Philippine society believe that the revival of the death penalty can serve as an effective deterrent for people involved in heinous crimes such as drug trafficking, rape, and murder. Several representatives in the Philippine Congress have also authored various bills in support of the reinstatement of capital punishment as a counter-measure against criminal operations within the state. In February 2017, House Bill 4727 or the bill to reintroduce the death penalty for certain heinous crimes passed the full House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate come April.

          Taking into consideration the situation of the Philippines, it is understandable why much of the populace favors the move to revive capital punishment. In the past decade, the state has struggled with the problem of the rising number of criminal cases involving murder and drugs that heavily impact on peace and order, livelihood, and emotional well-being of the citizens. Many Filipino citizens believe that the revival of the death penalty will help reduce the chances of such crimes taking place. However, there are experts who seek to disprove this claim. In 2009, Amnesty International published an article that claims that “Scientists agree, by an overwhelming majority, that the death penalty has no deterrent effect”. In support of this claim, the article cites a study done by Michael Radelet and Traci Lacock, a sociology professor and a graduate student respectively from the University of Colorado-Boulder. In the study, the researchers surveyed notable criminology experts on their opinion on the efficiency of the death penalty as a deterrent. The study found that 88.2% of the respondents do not believe that the death penalty can serve as a deterrent for murder and that there exists no study that supports the deterrence theory. Another research, this time by John Lamperti, a mathematics professor from Dartmouth University, supports this claim. In his study, Lamperti asserts that not only is there no significant effect of capital punishment on homicide rates, but that it might even worsen them. To support this, he cites a medical paper by Dr. Louis West, who argues that there are cases in which “a person actually kills in order to court death by execution.” West gives an example of a truck driver who was shot in a cafe by a total stranger. When questioned by the police the suspect replied, “I was just tired of living”. Lamperti then goes on to explain the possibility of the “brutalization hypothesis” which suggests that implementing the death penalty can encourage homicide by seeming to legitimize the killing of one’s enemies. As an example, he cites studies from London and New York state that found “an increase in homicides after highly publicized executions.” Lamperti concludes his research by saying that he believes that there is, in fact, no deterrent effect of capital punishment on homicide rates.

          This article does not even take into account the systemic discrimination that takes place within the bureaucracy when inmates are put on death row, and how many of those who were executed were proven to be innocent and were thus exonerated after further investigation. There are studies that seem to indicate that discrimination definitely does take place within the American justice system when it comes to sentencing inmates to death. One can argue that these studies were conducted in another state and therefore do not apply to the context of The Philippines. However, given that The Philippines ranks 113 out of 180 in the 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), I would say that the risks the country may face after implementing capital punishment are not worthwhile.

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

          Given the points made above, the thought that there are still Filipinos who strongly espouse the belief that the death penalty is good for society is nothing short of alarming. In fact, there are data that suggests the implementation of any form of harsh punishment does not have any significant effects on crime rates; It might even lead to repeat offenses. Furthermore, it is widely accepted throughout the world that murder violates the inherent dignity of the person. Throughout the international community, various laws are put into place to prevent any cases of unnecessary killing. Article 3 of the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights states that everyone has a right to live.

          It is believed by many in the international community that the human being who has inviolable worth and dignity should be at the center of any discourse that involves decision-making and other political processes. Why then should this belief be disregarded when talking about capital punishment? Should the human being not be the primary beneficiary of any policy implemented by international organizations? Why then should governments be given the authority to take human lives at their own judgement, especially considering the fact that governments, as institutions composed of imperfect human beings, are inherently flawed and are therefore subject to poor decision-making?

           There is much to think about when considering that a human life can be so easily handled despite poor judgement on the part of those in power. As Gandalf said, “even the very wise cannot see all ends.” I am thus inclined to ask how we, with all the power that we are blessed with, are confident that we should be able to cast stones and perfectly determine which human individuals deserve death.


Published: May 31, 2021
This piece is written by Augusto Delfin, a World Youth Alliance Asia Pacific volunteer, and a current regional intern for World Youth Alliance Europe.