Capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, is a government-sanctioned practice whereby a person is killed by the state as a punishment for a crime.
By its very nature, it violates the sanctity of life before God and man. Crimes that are punishable by death are known as capital offences, and commonly include offences such as murder, treason, espionage, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
The debate on capital punishment was recently heightened here by the sentencing to death of Ruth Kamande in June 2018 by High Court judge Jessie Lesiit for the murder of her 24-year-old boyfriend Farid Mohammed. Kamande was found guilty of stabbing Farid 22 times in 2015 in Nairobi. She was 21 years old then.
In her mitigation, the court noted that the accused did not indicate that she acted out of anguish or despair, and that she acted with clear intention to cause the deceased pain, suffering and death. While handing her the maximum punishment, the judge in his words intended “to deter young people from engaging in such offences”.
Amnesty International opposed the sentence handed to Kamande and proposed that it be commuted to life and for the accused to be rehabilitated instead. They argued that, in all cases without exception regardless of the nature of the crime, the characteristics of the offender, or the method used by the state to kill the prisoner, the death penalty was “a violation of the right to life, as it is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment”.
Major faiths all over the world have differing views on capital punishment. Catholicism opposes capital punishment while other religions, sects and/or individual adherents in some faiths support capital punishment.
The catechism of the Catholic Church previously held that the death penalty could be admissible “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”
Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI expressed opposition to executions but maintained that they were acceptable in certain circumstances.
However, Pope Francis, essentially found that that view was outdated and declared that capital punishment is “inadmissible” as it “attacks” the dignity of humans, and is, therefore, against Catholic teachings. This has significantly altered the church’s stance on the death penalty.
There has been a trend toward abolishing capital punishment the world over and many countries have abolished it either in law or in practice.
In Kenya, no executions have been carried out since 1987 when Kenya Air Force senior private Hezekiah Ochuka and Sergeant Pancras Oteyo Okumu were hanged for treason. In 2016, as provided by Article 133 of the Constitution, President Uhuru Kenyatta invoked the Power of Mercy and signed a pardon warrant that released 102 long-term convicts. He also signed commutation documents turning all death sentences into life jail terms.
The inability to abolish capital punishment in form of death sentences is however inconsistent with our national ethos and constitutional thresholds. Where is the place of rehabilitation of offenders when capital punishment is stayed? Reports indicate that before committing the crime and her subsequent arrest, Kamande was pursuing higher education at a local university.
While in prison, she sat the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination, scored an A- (minus) and trained as a paralegal. What happens to preservation of life? Are we therefore to assume that all her hard work at attempting to be a better person have borne no fruit as she waits for her “execution”? For how long do such people live in limbo?
Although the methods of execution vary, the end result is the death of a human being using deliberate and conscious actions from other human beings. Take lethal injection for instance, where poisonous chemicals are administered intravenously until death.
How reliable is it in delivering a quick, painless death as envisioned? Executions using lethal injections have been known to backfire when the victims did not die instantly, but writhed in pain for agonising minutes, even hours, before the lethal chemicals took effect. This method requires administration by a trained professional. So, what of the professional ethics like the Hippocratic Oath?
What would happen if in this era of access to information, the mixture of such chemicals get in unauthorised hands and are used in committing mass murders? Such questions need to make us take a critical look at alternatives when deciding modes of punishment for capital crimes.
Other inhumane methods of capital punishments include the electric chair, hangings, beheadings, firing squad etc., which are, to say the least savage and traumatic to witness and/or execute.
It is no wonder; executioners always wear a mask over their heads or use some form of disguise. Maybe it is the dread of the act of killing a “killer”, or the fear of being judged and stigmatised in society for their unconventional occupation, or the shame of what they are about to do, or the indignity of being the face behind this voluntary kind of execution.