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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