THE theory is that the prospect of being executed will cast an unimaginable fear in the heart of a criminal enough to make him stop.
But the jury is still out on this. A review of researches over a 34-year period on the deterrent effect of the death penalty conducted by a committee of the American National Academy of Sciences National Review Council points to the inconclusiveness of the claim that capital punishment indeed deters crime.
Eighty-eight percent of crime scientists interviewed in a 2009 survey conducted among members of the American Criminology Society, using not their personal opinions, but instead basing their responses on their assessment of the empirical researchers on the topic, believed that there is no scientific proof to the claim that capital punishment has a deterrent effect.
In fact, in the United States alone, from 1990 to 2015, murder rates in states without the death penalty were consistently lower than those with the death penalty.
Oxford University Professors Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle stated in their book “The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective” that “it is not prudent to accept the hypothesis that capital punishment, as practiced in the United States, deters murder to a marginally greater extent than does the threat and application of the supposedly lesser punishment of life imprisonment.”
There are various explanations on how extreme punishment may not necessarily deter crime.
Existing scientific theories on criminality indicate that the predisposition to commit crime is influenced by the environment, including not only physical but also social, particularly the people one associates with. Others would argue that biology and genetics determine criminal predisposition. Other competing theories indicate that people will commit crime out of frustration, for being unable to achieve their goals through legal means, or out of rational calculation that the benefits that they will get out of it far outweigh the risks.
Thus, if one considers the above theories, it is clear that the nature of the penalty would not be a significant factor when the criminal mind is enabled by environmental factors, or more so by biology and genetics. Frustration with society will not also be deterred by the penalty. Even when the crime is the result of a rational calculation of costs and benefits, the risks may not necessarily be dependent on the penalty, but on the probability that one will be caught, prosecuted and meted out a sentence.
The actual commission of heinous crimes is often an outcome of extreme rage, where one momentarily suspends fear. In some cases, the crime is committed by people who have lost their capacity for reason, either due to abnormal psychological states, or induced by chemicals or by intoxication.
Hence, at the moment of the commission of the crime, any consciousness about the nature of the penalty no longer becomes a consideration to the mind of the criminal.
The 1987 Constitution allows for capital punishment but only for heinous crimes. A heinous crime, by definition, is not only illegal, but one that is reprehensible and cannot be considered as a rational act of a human being.
Theoretically, a heinous act is done by someone who has lost his or her humanity. Under normal circumstances, those acts are committed by people who have become insane either permanently, or temporarily, such as crimes induced by drugs and crimes driven by blind rage, jealousy and passion
Permanent or temporary insanity, however, is one that triggers an act devoid of rational calculation, and therefore cannot be negated by knowledge of the severity of the punishment. In such cases, no amount of punishment, even one as extreme as death, can be an effective deterrent.
There are people who claim that treason, drug trafficking and plunder should all be considered heinous crimes. While these are serious offenses committed against the state, and against public interest, one would need to argue hard that these would qualify as acts that suspend the humanity of its perpetrators, enough to deny them a fundamental right to life.
Under ethical and moral theories, the only justification for denying another moral agent a fundamental right such as life is when such is in self-defense, and as a last recourse. Obviously, a person guilty of treason, or a drug trafficker, or a plunderer assaulted the state and the political community. But their acts do not constitute a depravity that renders them inhuman. Any deterrent to their act is not to take their lives, but to make them serve and repay the state and the political community with their hard labor.
Denied of its deterrent effect, the only compelling reason for capital punishment is vengeance. But lest we forget, the desire for revenge has become a powerful motivation for people to suspend their humanity and commit murder, an act that could be heinous, and could be covered by the very law being proposed, and for which the state is now authorized to commit.
This would be indeed a cruel irony, a most tragic contradiction.