Five death penalty myths debunked

7 April 2015, 14:44 UTC | Worldwide
Anti-death penalty demonstration by 250 Amnesty International delegates outside State House, Boston, USA, 1993. © Amnesty International

MYTH #1: The death penalty deters violent crime and makes society safer.

FACT: There is no convincing evidence that the death penalty deters crime.

More than thirty years after abolishing the death penalty, Canada’s murder rate remains over one third lower than it was in 1976. Similarly, Hong Kong experienced a drop in homicide rates in the 35 years following 1973, after abolishing the death penalty in 1966. 

MYTH #2: The threat of execution is an effective way to prevent terrorist attacks.

FACT: The threat of execution is unlikely to deter people prepared to kill or injure for the sake of their ideologies.

Some counter-terrorism officials point out that those who are executed may be perceived as martyrs and become a rallying point for those who share their beliefs.

Armed opposition groups also point to the use of the death penalty as justification for retaliation, thereby continuing the cycle of violence.

MYTH #3: The death penalty is fine as long as the majority of the public supports it.

FACT: Many human rights violations throughout history had the support of the public, but we look back on them now with horror. 

Slavery, racial segregation and lynching all had mass support from the societies in which they occurred. It doesn’t change the fact that they were gross violations of people’s human rights.

Public views often change depending on political leadership and whether unbiased information is available. It is the duty of governments to protect the rights of all individuals, even if this means acting against popular opinion. 

MYTH #4: All people who are executed have been proven guilty of serious crimes.

FACT: Around the world, hundreds of prisoners are executed following grossly unfair trials.

This can include extracting “confessions” through torture, denying access to lawyers and inadequate legal representation. 

The countries that execute the most regularly are also ones that raise serious concerns about their justice systems, for example China, Iran and Iraq. 

Since 1973, 144 death row prisoners in the USA have been recorded as absolved of their crimes. This shows that regardless of how many legal safeguards are in place, no justice system is free from error. As long as human justice remains fallible, we cannot eliminate the risk of executing innocent people.

MYTH #5: Relatives of murder victims demand capital punishment.

FACT: The global movement against the death penalty includes many who have lost their loved ones to, or are themselves victims of, violent crime.

In the USA for example, organisations such as “Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights” oppose the death penalty being enforced “in their name”. 

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