World Day Against the Death Penalty: Reflecting on Europe's Model


Today is World Day Against the Death Penalty, and major European officials used the opportunity to mark 14 years without a judicial execution on European soil. More so, they lamented the 58 countries which still retain the death penalty worldwide — most notably, the United States.

This occasion could strike a nerve with the U.S. — especially those who passionately debated the execution of Troy Davis. In fact, European nations still find the death penalty to be a controversial topic — but their ability to see past the debate and build a legal system on logic, not feelings, is commendable.

For all the self-congratulations, Europe also finds the death penalty a contentious and controversial topic. Those who believe Europeans are fundamentally opposed to the death penalty are wrong. Polling varies, but even the most optimistic picture is that the European public has mixed feelings about executing certain types of criminals.

Some polls seem to show a net support for reinstating the death penalty, with a dividing line drawn between an anti-capital punishment Western Europe and a pro-capital punishment Eastern Europe. In far-right newspapers, absurdly high support for the death penalty can be found, and it is also understood that those who have been victims of crime increase their support for the death penalty substantially.

The debate for many revolves around the idea of justice: Does life-time imprisonment equate to the severity of murder or other potentially capital crimes? In many respects, those who argue imprisonment is “punishment enough” are not always intellectually honest.

For instance, when the Lockerbie Bomber was controversially released from Scottish prison, Europeans joined the chorus of opposition. The fact that Libyan Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi was diagnosed with terminal cancer — and thus eligible for release — didn’t satisfy pundits, who essentially wished that al-Melgrahi’s 2001 conviction would put the criminal out-of-sight forever. In other words, they wanted his life sentence to serve essentially as an execution; his release on humane grounds exposed their hidden pro-execution logic. 

So how has Europe managed to resolve its death penalty debate?

Primarily by acknowledging that the very fact that the death penalty is so emotive justifies its abolition. Public opinion is not how a legal system works — public judgment and court-based justice are different things. Law is not supposed to be emotional.

Moreover, European legal systems turned against capital punishment after high-profile convictions were found to have been unsafe or flat-out incorrect after the fact. If a legal system maintains someone is innocent until proven guilty, it has to maintain that a legal judgment could be over-turned at a later date. Executions, unlike judgments, cannot be undone, so are justifiably prohibited.

Finally, the European model of abolishing capital punishment has clear human rights logic. That is, the European abolition of capital punishment reflects the recognition that the emotional feelings behind capital crimes can distort justice. A system that allows justice to be distorted by emotion is not abiding by the human rights principle of fair treatment for all.

It is thus down this legal path that Europeans, despite their internal disagreements, resolved to abolish the death penalty. The emotions that capital crimes evoke are understandable, and a desire for justice natural. But emotional law is bad law. Perhaps there is something to be taken from this European experience in the ongoing U.S. debate.

Photo Credit: dabnotu