The Death Penalty Positives and Negatives

I write this article to add a “New Zealand” perspective to this controversial subject. New Zealand currently does not have capital punishment. It has life imprisonment.


The cost of capital punishment: The Department of Corrections in New Zealand currently state the cost of keeping an offender in prison for one year as $90,977. Multiply this by twelve years and the cost exceeds one million dollars. Compare this to the cost of incarcerating an offender after trial (including an appeal) up to the time of execution and you have a clear indication of the difference in cost. This is working on the assumption that the time between conviction of the offence, and the execution taking place are in line with the procedure carried out in Britain (before the removal of the death penalty) as against the United States. Up to the abolition of the death penalty in Britain, the normal time for an offender to wait in prison including an appeal was eight weeks. In the United States the process can become long and extremely expensive due to the many appeals the offender can make.

Complete and irrefutable removal of the offender from society: There are numerous cases on record in many countries where offenders who have been released from prison after serving a so called “life sentence” have killed again. One example is Arthur Shawcross, who in 1972 killed Jack Blake (aged ten) and Karen Hill (aged eight) in Watertown, New York. He was released in 1987, and moved to Rochester, New York where he murdered thirteen women before being finally caught and sentenced to four hundred and fifty years in prison.

Final closure for the victim’s family: While nothing is going to bring the victim(s) back, at least those who have to spend the rest of their lives grieving for those they have lost can see justice being dispensed. Whether this includes the American way of performing the execution where friends and family actually watch the condemned die is a matter for those in authority to decide.

A deterrent to others: It is obviously a difficult task to prove that the death penalty deters people from killing others, while some murders are committed in a ‘moment of fury” and having the death penalty in place would not have stopped them happening. As a comparison only, I show the following statistics.

In Britain between 1965 (after the death penalty was suspended) and 1969 statistics showed a 125% increase in crimes that would have attracted the death penalty. In the USA, the murder rate dropped from 24,562 in 1993 to 18,209 in 1997 (the lowest in years) during a period of increased use of the death penalty.

DNA testing removes any uncertainty: The advancement of scientific technology in the last twenty years has virtually removed any possibility of someone being wrongly convicted if they left their DNA at a murder scene. A classic example in New Zealand is child killer Jules Mikas who avoided being caught for the abduction, rape, and murder of six year old Teresa Cormack in 1987. He was finally arrested in 2002 after being DNA tested. He was sentenced to Preventive Detention due to his extensive criminal history. If capital punishment had been used in New Zealand in 2002 Mikas would have been executed.

What is the use of putting serial killers and mass murderers into prison for the rest of their lives? Apart from “removing them from society” placing people like this into prison who obviously enjoy killing achieves nothing except lumbering the tax payer with even more of a heavy load. How can it possibly be said that these people can pay their debt to society?


We now live in more enlightened times: Some would say that reintroducing the death penalty is a “return to the dark ages” and should be left where it belongs – in the past. New Zealand only ever used one main method of capital punishment, which was death by hanging. Those states in America that use the death penalty today have mostly moved away from hanging as a form of execution.

Suffering for the family of the condemned person: There has to be taken into consideration the suffering and grief of the family of the person sentenced to die. Sometimes this is a very public affair – the case of Van Tuong Nguyen caught trying to smuggle drugs out of Singapore is an example. Both his mother and twin brother were filmed constantly by the media up to and after the young man’s execution.

Most countries in Europe have now revoked the death penalty: In 2002 thirty-six members of the European Council agreed to “a complete abolishment of the death penalty regardless of circumstances.”

The execution of mentally ill or deficient people: Perhaps one of the strongest arguments against capital punishment is that unless there are exceptions built into the law, all of those above a certain age found guilty of murder will be executed. A good example of this is the case of Derek Bentley, who was nineteen years of age when he was involved in the fatal shooting of Police Constable Miles in Britain in 1952. Bentley had a mental age of eleven, and was caught on the roof of a warehouse attempting a robbery with his friend Christopher Craig, aged sixteen. When Craig was asked to hand over his gun Bentley yelled to him “let him have it Chris”. After Craig shot and killed PC Miles, both were apprehended, but only Bentley was sentenced to death as Craig was only sixteen. Bentley was found guilty of murder with the jury recommending mercy, but was sentenced to death, while Craig spent ten years in prison, being released in 1963. After losing his appeal on 13 January 1953, and much pressure from his family and supporters to no avail, Bentley was hanged on 28 January 1953.

A life sentence in prison is harsh enough punishment: In New Zealand we are now seeing many offenders spending fifteen to seventeen years plus in prison before being eligible for parole. This is in line with “Sensible Sentencing” and shows that there are degrees of sentencing for murder. Being deprived of their freedom, and living their life in a regimented and boring environment for many years is indeed a heavy punishment. For some offenders this is such an adjustment from life on the outside that their life does indeed become a living hell, and thoughts of suicide are not uncommon. These offenders – both men and women – are sometimes forced to share their daily routine with people they would normally have never associated with.

There is always the possibility that the person convicted of murder is innocent: While science has advanced the chances of the police catching the right person for murder there will always be the chance that the person convicted is actually innocent. In recent New Zealand history the one person to dominate headlines on and off for years was Arthur Allan Thomas. Charged with murdering Jeanette and Harvey Crewe in 1970 Thomas was found guilty of their murder both at his first trial in 1971, and again at his second trial in 1973. After English writer David Yallop  wrote the book “Beyond Reasonable Doubt” in 1978 the then Prime Minister Robert Muldoon ordered an inquiry which suggested a miscarriage of justice had occurred. Thomas was officially pardoned in December 1979 and immediately released from prison. A royal commission followed in 1980 with Thomas being paid nearly $1 million in compensation. If the death penalty had been in place in 1971 Thomas would have been executed.


1. Lethal Injection – This is currently used by thirty-five states in the USA and is now accepted as a more humane way of applying the death penalty. The injection carries three drugs, first of which is an anaesthetic (Sodium Thiopental) which puts the prisoner into a deep sleep. This is followed by a paralysing agent (Pancuronium Bromide) that stops breathing by paralysing the diaphragm and lungs (there are other chemicals that can be used as a paralysing agent). Lastly, a toxic agent (usually Potassium Chloride) is given at a lethal dose in order to induce cardiac arrest.

2. Hanging – The last judicial hanging took place in New Zealand at Mount Eden Prison in Auckland in 1957. There are a number of factors that need to be taken into consideration when conducting a hanging. If these are not performed correctly the hanging could turn into a gruesome spectacle with the condemned strangling slowly or even being beheaded. The “long drop” method is supposed to be the most merciful option, while the correct length of rope is important. The hangman will check the condemned person’s weight, and also measure the distance from his or her neck to the floor.

3. Electrocution – The electric chair was first used in the United Staes of America at the end of the nineteenth century and like hanging, has had a chequered history. During the 1990’s one model actually caught fire because of a short circuit and was temporarily taken out of service! The procedure is as follows: heavy leather straps are lashed to each leg at the ankle, while two straps control the arms. Straps on the waist, chest, and head are also used. A metal cap is fitted above the seated man’s head, and the headpiece, together with the electrode strapped to (usually) the right leg serve as conductors for the fatal bolt of electricity.

4. The Gas Chamber – Beneath the chair is a bowl filled with sulphuric acid mixed with distilled water, with a pound of sodium cyanide pellets suspended in a gauze bag just above. The door is sealed, the warden gives the signal, and the executioner releases the cyanide into the liquid. This causes a chemical reaction that releases hydrogen cyanide gas, which rises through the holes in the chair.

5. Firing Squad – A hood is placed over the condemned person’s head. Sometimes a target has been attached to their tee-shirt with the firing squad taking aim and shooting (sometimes behind a screen).

This is, of course, not all of the available methods of execution that have been, or are currently used, by different countries.

As is to be expected, this is a difficult and complex subject which draws on the emotions of those who have an opinion on either side of the argument. I have tried to offer a good cross section of  examples for readers to evaluate.

SOURCES: Death Penalty Information Centre (DPIC)