Capital Punishment: Arguments for Life and Death

Article excerpt


Despite capital punishment having been abolished in Canada 20 years ago, the majority of Canadians continue to favour the death penalty as a sentencing option. In this study, a 2 x 6 design was employed to investigate the effects that argument position (for or against the death penalty) and type of justification for punishment (deterrence, morality, rehabilitation, incapacitation, economic, and possibility of mistake) have on participants' sentence recommendations for a defendant found guilty of first degree murder. Results indicated that only those arguments in favour of the death penalty, based on retribution, economics, and impossibility of mistake, were effective in influencing participants to recommend that the accused be sentenced to death. Compared to participants who recommended a life sentence, those who recommended the death penalty were found to have significantly higher scores on a measure of vengeance.


Bien que la peine capitale ait ete abolie au Canada il y a vingt ans, la majorite de la population canadienne continue de favoriser la peine de mort comme possibilite de sentence. Dans cette etude, on a eu recours a une grille de 2 sur 6 pour etudier les effets que la prise de position (pour ou contre la peine de mort) et les motifs invoques (dissuasion, moralite, rehabilitation, neutralisation, raison economique et possibilite d'erreur) ont sur les recommandations de peine formulees par les participants pour inculper une personne reconnue coupable de meurtre premedite. Les resultats demontrent que seuls les arguments en faveur de la peine capitale bases sur le chatiment impose au crime, les facteurs economiques et l'impossibilite qu'il y ait erreur pouvaient influencer efficacement les participants a recommander que l'accuse recoive la peine de mort. Comparativement aux participants ayant recommande une peine d'emprisonnement a vie, les personnes ayant recommande la peine de mort ont enregistre des scores relativement plus eleves dans une mesure de l'esprit de vengeance.

Although the Parliament of Canada abolished the death penalty as a sentencing option in 1976 (Amnesty International, 1987), a majority of Canadians (approximately 65 - 75%) have indicated that they would support a return of the death penalty (Reid, 1987). Furthermore, calls for the the reintroduction of the death penalty by politicians and others occur frequently. As a result of the public's apparent support for capital punishment, and the possibility of its return, it is important to continue studying factors that influence people's attitudes regarding the death penalty.

People have used a number of arguments to support their position regarding the death penalty (see Baum, 1985; Ellsworth & Ross, 1983; Ogloff, 1987). Among the arguments employed have been deterrence, cost, retribution, incapacitation, rehabilitation and mistake (Baum, 1985; Ogloff, 1987). It has been suggested, though, that a person's position on the issue of capital punishment is not determined by a rationale evaluation of the arguments for and against the death penalty, but is an emotionally based, moral opinion, that may be based on vengeance (Ellsworth & Ross, 1983). The present study was designed to investigate arguments which may be effective in persuading people to recommend a sentence of life imprisonment or one of death.

The Death Penalty in the United States

As there currently is no provision for capital punishment in Canada, the substance and procedure that is used in some of the United States to impose the death penalty will be employed in this study. In 1972, the United States Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment, as it was then being administered, was being applied in an arbitrary and capricious manner which constituted cruel and unusual punishment (Furman v Georgia, 1972). In its decision, the Court noted that the death penalty statutes were vague and ambiguous, providing little guidance to juries in deciding whether to apply the death penalty. …