Should the death penalty ever be used (if yes, in which cases) and why?

There’s a really powerful comment on the use of the death penalty that’s just appeared on Quora.

The comment is by Quora user Rick Bruno, who describes himself as “Retired cop, marathoner, husband/father/grandfather, wonderer”.

Warning – Graphic Content

Many years ago, when I was still early in my career as a police officer, I attended a training class that was taught by the FBI. The class was about forensics, and about what the state of the art was at that time. Everyone in the class was a police officer with evidence technician responsibilities.

The instructor showed us slides of a multiple homicide, and I have never forgotten those pictures.

It bothers me to relate this, but you need to know the depth of my feeling if you want my opinion.

Here was what happened. A grandfather had made plans to take his daughter and her two children to the zoo. He arrived at their house to pick them up, but the daughter (mom) was still getting ready. So grandpa waited in the living room with the oldest child (a girl of about 7) while the baby (about 18 months) slept in her crib and mom finished getting ready in the washroom.

The father/son/husband of the family found this scene upon his return home from work that afternoon.

At some point a stranger with a machete forced his way into the residence and immediately killed the grandfather. The seven year old was next, she was decapitated. The mother heard the screams, and came running out of the washroom and saw a scene from Hell. He then savagely raped her, and then disemboweled her with the machete. There were blood stains in the baby’s crib, but the baby was missing. There was an electric blender in the kitchen with blood and gore in it. The baby’s body parts were found the next day, partially cannibalized. She had been dumped at a roadside a few miles from her home.

The instructor calmly walked us through the slides, showing the splintered front door jamb, pointing out blood splatter patterns, showing the wounds sustained by the victims, describing defensive wounds on the grandfather and the mother’s hands. Bloody footwear impressions, assorted makeup in the washroom that mom had been applying to herself before she was distracted, toys, baby bottles, a diaper bag ready to go.

You could have heard a pin drop in that classroom. We sat there in the dark, listening to this matter-of-fact lecture, and I wondered if anyone else was experiencing the same rage as I felt building up inside me.

After a while, the instructor asked if there were any questions. Someone asked if the murderer had been caught, as this case was a few years old at the time. The instructor told us the father/husband/son was quickly dismissed as a suspect. Local law enforcement developed a lead and a man who lived a couple blocks away from this family had been arrested a day or two after the crime. The suspect hung himself in his cell before his trial began.

As I said, it still bothers me to relive the slides I saw that day. I have been to many homicide scenes in my career, many accidental deaths involving children. This case was always a yardstick in my opinion of the death penalty.

As a young police officer, this was my first exposure to pure evil. I knew people could be bad to each other, I was not that naive. But I could not help putting my own family into that family’s situation, and seeing their faces. I honestly do not know how the father was able to go on with his life after this. Or if he did.

I hated that monster with every fiber of my being. I still do. I would have volunteered to kill him after his trial. If anyone deserved to die for their crimes, it was this beast.

And so, years went by. The job and life and wisdom and faith too, all changed me. I saw flaws in the system I was sworn to uphold. I saw judges who knew less about the law than a rolled up newspaper. Corrupt judges, inept police officers, dishonest attorneys, mistakes at every level.

One of my law professors told me, “A courtroom is the last place in the world where you will find the truth.” I believe him.

And so, no. The death penalty should not be a part of any criminal justice system. There are too many possibilities that we could screw up justice.

There is real evil in the world. Believe it. But we should not fight it with evil.

It is a sad thing that a Buddhist king, Ashoka, was the first major ruler in history to abolish the death penalty, over 2000 years ago, and yet in the majority of so-called Buddhist countries today the death penalty still exists. It is, however, applied rarely in most Buddhist countries, so surely it can’t be that hard to take the next step and get rid of it altogether.


18 thoughts on “Should the death penalty ever be used (if yes, in which cases) and why?

  1. Hi Bhante. I am ‘no’ to the death penalty but disturbed by repeat offenders. Harsh punishments may not be the way to go but some of these people need to be restrained. They also need to be protected from themselves. BTW, I don’t think Ashoka was the saint he is made out to be. There is speculation that is ‘conversion’ to Buddhism was more a political strategy than a real change of heart. There are suggestions that he continued to ‘remove’ those that opposed him.

  2. Depends on how you view the death penalty. In the British based ideas of justice there’s judicial execution, summary execution and execution of enemy combatants in war. Sri Lanka for example has made extensive use of the last two. As has Burma. In Burma Buddhists are also killing their Muslim neighbours in episodes of vigilantism. These extra-judicial killings are represented to us as attempts at social justice. Thailand now under martial law (again), and quite a few protesters have been killed one way or another. And so on.

    So to my mind the question is much broader than just state sanctioned judicial execution. Buddhist countries are killing their subjects in a variety of ways that probably demand a variety of responses. Buddhism is fairly clear on the subject of killing, though on the internet one can always find some Buddhists willing to make the case for killing one to save many. However most of the Buddhists reading this are not politically active in their own countries, let alone meddling in the politics of Buddhist countries, most of which are pretty volatile places with histories of political strife and violence.

    Maybe the question ought to go beyond forming an opinion, and delve in the area of what readers would be prepared to do about it? For example, perhaps Western Buddhists leaders could launch a high profile boycott of countries which continue to execute their citizens, whether judicially or extra-judicially? No more donations, no more visits, no more silent acquiescence to state sanctioned killing.

    This kind of approach certainly helped to end Apartheid in South Africa. I was a supporter of breaking off sporting ties with SA and this was a difficult position since I lived in New Zealand. NZ hosted SA for a rugby tour in 1981 and divided the nation, and my own family. I was at school, but marched to support the sporting ban. The breaking of religious ties with nominally Buddhist countries that sanction executions (of any kind) might be a useful gesture if enough of us got behind it.

  3. Sadhu. Sadhu. Sadhu. Thanks for this. Is there really something as a “Buddhist” country? Sometimes I hardly believe there is something like “Buddhism” at all. There is a Buddha, there is Dhamma to be experienced here and now, there is a Sangha of people who take the Dhamma to heart. Sometimes a few of these people with Dhamma in their heart organise to create a society based on their interpretation of the Dhamma. However, this society is still tainted by samsara and soon its goals become subtly subverted. In time, less wise leaders access power and change them to suit their own agenda. I personally do not like talking about Buddhism because it makes it sound like it is an ideology, whereas I think it should be a means to transcend ideologies, superstitions and fixed views. So it am not surprised at all to see “Buddhist” countries follow uncompassionate and irrational laws that pay back suffering with suffering. Some people may find satisfaction in revenge, but this fact only reflects such people’s attitudes and flaws.

  4. i admit i’ve read little of Nikayas, but i haven’t yet come across mentioning of Buddha’s condemnation of a ruler for execution of criminals or employment of harsh punishments, as a method of didactics he even describes how people are being tortured if they violate the law or simply at a king’s whim, which shows that it was a normal practice which didn’t bother him much

    i don’t think Buddhism should get political, as involvement in social matters is surely politics, and engage in campaigns, because interest in the world is not the purpose of the Dhamma, its purpose is disenchantment with and liberation from it

    the proper way of Buddhism to influence the world in my opinion is simple propagation of the Dhamma
    death penalty will be naturally, de facto abolished when no judge sentences to it, no executioner effectuates it and nobody seeks employment as an executioner, just because of reluctance to violate the first precept

  5. Hi there,

    Actually alot of the time it is the people behind it the people who get others to do these things – you know people in high positions – people even religious people – often the poor flakes who are use or pressured to do it – often it is those behind it those that coerce people into doing such things that are the real problems.

  6. Allison says:

    Perhaps life imprisonment without parole can be as painful as being executed.

    depends on a country, it appears that Brevik’s imprisonment living conditions can make sentence serving a bearable experience

  7. Rick Bruno’s concerns (from the Quora article) are appropriate. The criminal justice system is imperfect. Stories of wrongful convictions could fill the Grand Canyon. Even when one is questioning the appropriateness of the death penalty in a graphic case, or in the case of a serial killer, you are typically dealing with a sociopath. This is someone that has no regard for life, including his own. A death penalty is really no penalty at all for some. State sponsored death penalties serve no deterrent purpose (this has been proven), and in the US, the costs on the state for the required appeals can run into the millions of dollars. As Buddhists. we abhor killing. There can never be a rationale for state sponsored killing in response to crime.

    Even with the worst criminals, better to place them in unpleasant confinement for the remainder of their days. Require them to work, and use these small earnings to pay symbolic restitution to the victim’s family. Require these individuals to live out their days confined in relative hardship ( I don’t mean cruelty, but austerity and labor) , so that with each day there might be some eventual mindfulness of the harm they have caused. Limit their freedoms, and allow them only a minimally appropriate existence (necessary health care, basic food, books but no/limited basic TV). Provide rehabilitative services (including meditation training) for those with the capacity to learn and change. Such a restricted life might even be a deterrent for some would-be killers; again, state sponsored death is an easy escape.

    One difficulty that we have in the US is that we have a prison system that is highly dysfunctional. Some court cases have required that the state provide services, including cosmetic surgery, for inmates. Most prisoners live easier lives than the nation’s poor children, many who go day to day without shelter and proper nutrition. Thus, the public sees a death penalty by default as the most appropriate way to exact revenge on a criminal, as life imprisonment is too “cushy” an outcome for convicted killers. In my perfect world, there would be no state sponsored death. Prison time for convicted killers would be restrictive and unpleasant. There is no truly perfect response as a community to violence; we can only hope to not replicate the violence with more hatred, blind retribution, and violence.

  8. What are we hoping to achieve by the death penalty? The murderer in the case described killed himself. It may have brought some relief, or comfort, to the remaining family members to know that he was no longer alive, they could hear no further news of him. No hangman or others were involved in his death, so they were spared that moral problem.

    We know nothing of his past. He may have been a schizophrenic in the grip of paranoia. He may have been an abused or abandoned child. He may have been pulling the wings from flies since he was a small child, he may have no ability to feel empathy or remorse, due to conditioning, or past life karma. He may have committed previous violent crimes. He may not. He may have had a head injury and been recently released from hospital. We don’t know.

    We do not know if he would be capable of being returned to a human being with human qualities of compassion. Should he be given the benefit of the doubt, imprisoned to protect the lives of others, and given the opportunity to take medication, reflect, be offered rehabilitation, or simply suffer the karma he has created?

    I can only say, I would not like to be in the position of deciding that another person should die. I can not know that person, or the consequences fully. If I were to condemn a person to death, I am then a murderer myself.

    “Hatred never ceased by hatred, but by love alone is healed”. And don’t we all, at some time, commit murder in our hearts? To ourselves, and others?

  9. There are two parts to this question. Is the death penalty ever justified, and what is the Buddhist response to the death penalty. I have a view on the former but I am no expert on the later.

    My view is that there is no justification for the death penalty. It is simply state sponsored revenge and purely an emotional response – and a bad emotional response. There is no deterrent value (well proven now) and it simply perpetuates the cycle of violence. Basically having the death penalty means society condones killing.

    Lifelong imprisonment without parole is the appropriate sentence for psychopathic killers who cannot be rehabilitated (most serial killers) – they are missing the part of the brain that allows for empathy and conscience and cannot be helped in this lifetime. Paranoid schizophrenics (likely diagnosis in the case described above) are treatable. They are sick not evil – although often their crimes are the most graphically heinous. However even so lifelong imprisonment may be required to protect the public. Murders of passion and most one off criminal murders are done by people who do have the potential for rehabilitation.

    In no class of murder is the death penalty a reasonable response.

  10. The argument of this piece suggests that the reason we shouldn’t use the death penalty is because our knowledge is fallible. It implies that some crimes do warrant death as punishment, but our human justice system cannot guarantee that it is in these cases, and only these, that the death penalty will be inflicted, and for this reason we should never use it (but leave such judgment and punishment up to infallible agencies such as God or the workings of karma, presumably).

    A different reason for rejecting the death penalty is to say that no matter what a person has done, or how much suffering they have caused to others, we should never give up on them, or their capacity to change (and such a person should never be encouraged to give up on their own capacity for good). The story of Angulimala is a classic illustration of this principle – even a serial killer on a grand scale was able to hear the Buddha’s teaching and stop doing harm. This didn’t mean that he could use his new identity as a monk to avoid the social consequences of what he had previously done. When he complained that people were rejecting and attacking him on alms rounds, the Buddha basically said, “Deal with it, mate.” But life was allowed to go (much more peacefully) on.

    • Hi Juzzeau,

      Yes; but the two arguments are not incompatible. I think both of them apply. The weakness of the former argument is that we could say, fine, let’s fix the justice system, then we can kill anyone we want! But I still think it is morally unacceptable no matter what.

  11. Bhante, in the last paragraph you say emperor Ashoka was the first Buddhist ruler to completely abolish the death penalty. Ive read that he allowed convicts 3 days to see their families before execution but i was not aware that he abolished capital punishment all together. Where did you come by this information? I find it fascinating.

    • Hi Lars,

      It is a controversial point, and usually has been translated as you said (eg. in the commonly available translation by Dhammika). However KR Norman argued in 1976 that this was a misinterpretation (Ashoka and Capital Punishment). His work on this has been cited by Gombrich, eg., in his “Aśoka — The Great Upāsaka”. It’s been some time since I read the article, so I can’t comment in detail, but Norman is the foremost linguist who has studied the inscriptions so this is as good as it gets as far as far as relevant authorities go.

  12. Well I suppose that cuts Thailand out of the group of Buddhist countries
    (being shot with an mashine gun through a bed sheet for a fig leaf is rather sophist, isn’t it? )
    Anyway, in case anybody still thinks it “necessary” — let the judges do killing themselves …

    I just discovered: “At a cinemy near you” (movie released 2014-06-30)

  13. I realise the discussion on this blog has moved on, but I recently came across a passage in a Stoic text (Epictetus’ Discourses, 1.18 ‘That we should not be angry with those who do wrong’) that gives another eloquent argument against the death penalty:

    ‘So this thief here and this adulterer shouldn’t be put to death?’ Not at all, but what you should be asking instead is this: ‘This man who has fallen into error and is mistaken about the most important matters, and thus has gone blind, not with regard to the eyesight that distinguishes white from black, but with regard to the judgement that distinguishes good from bad – should someone like this be put to death?’ If you put the question in that way, you’ll recognize the inhumanity of the thought that you’re expressing, and see that it is equivalent to saying, ‘Should this blind man, then, or that deaf one, be put to death?’ For if the greatest harm that a person can suffer is the loss of the most valuable goods, and the most valuable thing that anyone can possess is correct choice, then if someone is deprived of that, what reason is left for you to be angry with him? Why, man, if in an unnatural fashion you really must harbour feelings with regard to another person’s misfortunes, you ought to pity rather than hate him.

    • That’s very powerful, thanks. From a Buddhist perspective we could argue the point that life in prison, while suffering in many respects, gives the prisoner the one thing that they most need: the chance to find redemption in their own heart. Not even the most oppressive prison in the world can take that from you.

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