Finding an Executioner in India

Posted by John MacGregor, Guest Blogger on June 16th, 2011

A recent New York Times article discussed the difficulty one Indian state is having finding a hangman for an upcoming execution. With the president rejecting a last chance appeal for a murderer in the state of Assam, prison officials are now being forced to find an executioner. The only problem is that no one has answered the ad. With executions a rarity in India (the last in the entire country of 1.2 billion people was in 2004), very few certified hangmen can be found. Officials in Assam eventually began looking to neighboring states for help, but continued to be stymied. While the fate of the condemned man is up in the air pending the search, Indian defense lawyers are raising issues that find resonance with many of the flaws in the American system.

After a capital sentence is handed down in India, a mercy appeal goes before the country’s president. This appeal does not have to be decided within a set time frame. The petition for the condemned man in Assam sat pending on the desks of three presidents before it was finally rejected last month. This snail’s pace has led some defense lawyers to launch a counter intuitive argument: “The man was given capital punishment but not 14 years of imprisonment,” the condemned man’s lawyer argued. “For the last 12 years, you are virtually killing him every day.”

“You are keeping a man with the sword of Damocles hanging over his head,” another defense lawyer remarked. This argument contends that forcing someone to wait years or decades for their execution amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Ostensibly, this argument is calling for either the abolition of capital punishment or the streamlining of the process. Interestingly, the American death penalty faces many of the same problems the Indian system does.

In the United States, inmates often wait longer than 15 years before being executed, with some inmates having waited for more than 30 years. Applying the Indian argument, these inmates have been sentenced to death, not 30 years imprisonment and then death. While streamlining the process may sound appealing, other blog entries have noted the many instances where new exculpatory evidence comes to light and exonerates condemned inmates after years of incarceration.

The current lengthy appeals process serves a purpose – it ensures, among other things, that the condemned inmate indeed was guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. Doing away with this process would dramatically increase the likelihood of an innocent person being executed. If we agree that a lengthy appeals process is oftentimes necessary, yet that such a wait accompanied by the uncertainty of death amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, perhaps the only ethical alternative is abolition.

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