The ‘theoretical’ fear that an innocent life could be snuffed out by an irreversible penalty like death has received chilling confirmation in a recent Columbia University law school study that found the American State of Texas wrongfully executed a man in 1989. This is a particularly ominous finding for democratic countries where the right to life has been enshrined as a fundamental right. The Columbia study claims that Carlos Deluna was not guilty of the crime for which he was put to death. The defence team’s plea to the prosecution that the real offender was another man who bore close physical resemblance to the accused went unheeded. The study also points to glaring discrepancies in gathering evidence, the examination of witnesses and in the application of forensic procedures. The fresh evidence in this Texas execution is sure to further the debate on the efficacy of capital punishment in the U.S., where 17 States have already abolished this anachronistic provision from their laws. Connecticut, which enacted its abolition legislation in April, is the fifth in as many years to have repealed the death penalty and others have halted executions in a country-wide trend of declining support.
Whereas Russia has established a moratorium on executions, happily, slow reform of this barbaric penalty is under way in the People’s Republic of China. In India, which last resorted to hanging in 2004, the legitimacy of death sentences has come under increasing public scrutiny. The emotional trauma and prolonged uncertainty faced by the large numbers on death row have, if anything, amplified the deep scepticism in the highest circles of government and the administration on the wisdom behind persisting with this age-old relic of criminal jurisprudence. This was most vividly on display in the halted hanging of Balwant Singh Rajoana, in connection with the 1995 assassination of the former Chief Minister of Punjab, Beant Singh. Any realistic prospects for doing away with the death penalty in India hinge on the establishment of a moratorium on hangings forthwith and exposing its irrational and arbitrary nature.