The death penalty is an unjust sentence, according to Irfan Khawaja, adjunct professor of philosophy and religion. Khawaja explained why he is against the death penalty last Wednesday night at the “To Kill or Not to Kill: Death Penalty” talk.
Khawaja listed three major arguments in favor of the death penalty and then rebutted each in his talk.
The main argument for the death penalty, Khawaja said, is the belief that some who have performed terrible acts deserve to die.
Opponents of the death penalty are divided in their response to this argument, he said. Some believe no one deserves to die, that people have a right to live no matter what. Others believe some criminals deserve to die. In this reasoning, there needs to be an “airtight, transparent case” to charge someone with the loss of their life, according to Khawaja.
“I want to suggest that even if people deserve to die, it is not just to kill them,” Khawaja said.
Khawaja also warned against going to the other extreme. Being too lax causes problems as well, such as criminals getting off too easily. Khawaja would push for life imprisonment as a compromise.
Deterrence is another reason to support the death penalty. Proponents think that executing criminals will deter others from committing crimes out of fear for their own lives. The facts, however, do not support this claim. “It seems that there is no statistical case for the deterrence effect,” Khawaja said.
Even if evidence of such an effect did exist, Khawaja said he ponders what the ratio between executed murderers and saved possible victims would be. If it is simply balanced, it is unjust; but how many more need to be saved for the death penalty to be morally permissive?
“You want to preclude people from dying, but you’re killing people to prevent others from dying. What deters you from killing the wrong people? The answer is ‘nothing,'” Khawaja said.
He said a third reason given in favor of the death penalty is the victim’s family finding closure for the death of their loved one. Since the victim cannot be brought back to life, it is thought the next best thing is for the murderer to die as well.
Khawaja admits that this would be a very good argument if it could be shown to be true. However, “there is very little evidence that the death penalty brings closure,” he said.
Khawaja said long-term studies of the effects of the death penalty on family closure are missing from the equation. There is no evidence that all families find closure when the murderer is executed, nor is there evidence that families only find closure if the murderer is executed. In fact, according to Khawaja, families very often find closure when the murderer is not executed.
“The problem is, people are different,” Khawaja said. Some would like to get eye-for-an-eye type revenge, while all others need is to face the criminal. “(The closure theory) is too psychological a phenomenon,” he said.
Khawaja also cited the cost of execution as another reason against the death penalty. The process involved costs much more than holding someone in prison for life.
Khawaja hopes that by putting proponents on the offensive, support will begin to crumble and the death penalty will be abolished within his lifetime.
“I take murder seriously, I just don’t think death is the way to handle it,” Khawaja said. The death penalty is “not compatible with justice.”
Despite the controversial nature of the topic, there was no strong opposition to Khawaja’s talk. “We invited many organizations to come out and present their side of the argument to have a very open forum on the subject,” Tamie Victor, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) vice president, said. “There were some people who presented objective arguments,” but the little controversy there was was “responded to with factual information.”
One student brought up the fact that criminals sentenced to life without parole would inevitably die in prison anyway. “I believe that (Khawaja replied with) something along the lines of, ‘Is it really the states’ responsibility to say when a person should die or not?'” Victor said.
One student wondered if criminals with mental disorders are regarded in the same way with respect to the death penalty as those without disorders. Khawaja said if the criminals do not have disorders, they deserve to die. However, he said it is difficult to verify.
Racial and other biases in death penalty sentencing is another consideration. According to the ACLU Web site, “The death penalty has never been applied fairly across race, class and gender lines.”
“I believe that the death penalty is a forgotten subject in civil liberties and I am happy that we had the pleasure of having Professor Khawaja come out and speak,” Victor said. “I hope that the students at the College continue to show support to the ACLU.”
Khawaja’s talk was sponsored by TCNJ-ACLU, a chapter of the national organization dedicated to the preservation of all human rights guaranteed by the Constitution and Bill of Rights.