Are brutes capable of reform?

Last Updated: Fri, Jul 13, 2018 12:46 hrs

Every time a criminal is sentenced to death, popular opinion is divided into three camps – those who believe the noose is not punishment enough; those who believe justice has been served; and those who believe capital punishment should be abolished.

The last few days have kept all three camps busy, with two appeals against the death sentence in high-profile cases being rejected.

The Supreme Court denied clemency to three of the convicted perpetrators of the Delhi bus rape of 2012, who had filed a review petition against a May 2017 order by the same court. One of the four on death row had chosen not to appeal.

A day later, the Madras High Court upheld the death sentence for Dhasvanth, the 23-year-old techie who had challenged the verdict of a trial court in the rape and murder of a seven year old in February 2017.

In May 2017, Justice R Banumathi upheld the death sentence of the four convicts in the Delhi bus rape case, sans Ram Singh who was found dead in Tihar jail in 2013, and the juvenile who was sent on his way with a sewing machine and seed money to start a new life after spending three years in a reform centre.

The verdict had initially been pronounced by a special fast-track court in Delhi, in September 2013, and upheld on appeal in the Delhi High Court in 2014.

In May 2017, Justice Banumathi said there was no “justification” in commuting the sentence, and more than a year later, Justice Ashok Bhushan has ruled that there are no grounds for interference on her order. A review petition could not be used to re-argue the case.

I have often found myself in a club of one when the issue of capital punishment has come up. I do see the point of those who say the state has no right to take away the life of anyone. But in the case of a dangerous sociopath who is capable of such brutality as the gang rape of December 16, 2012, or capable of planning and executing the rape and murder of a child, what safeguards can we possible put in place to ensure there are no further victims?

As details of the horrors inflicted on the bus rape victim filtered out, over the 13 days she struggled in the intensive care unit, people were either paralysed with shock or galvanised into going out to protest. How else does one react to the knowledge that a group of people inflicted such trauma on another living being?

As for Dhasvanth, another case is pending against him – the alleged murder of his mother when he was out on bail, in December 2017, after which he was arrested in Bombay.

One of the main arguments against the death sentence is that any number of guilty may go unpunished, but an innocent person should not be killed.

What about when guilt is proven beyond the shadow of a doubt?

Those who oppose capital punishment put forward various arguments in defence of its abolishment, the most popular of which is that it is not a deterrent, a point supported by statistics they offer.

Perhaps the crime rate does not drop. But we will never know how many people desist from offending from fear of being sentenced to death.

What we do know is that someone who is dead cannot offend again, outside the world of horror movies.

What we also know is that a person who spends some years in jail, more often than not, forms bonds with his fellow inmates and sharpens his modus operandi and is likely to commit more crimes with newfound partners after release.

With jails being as crowded as they are, locking the door and throwing away the key – perhaps a punishment worse than death and one that ensures the sociopath in question will not offend again – is not an option.

It is convenient to believe everyone is capable of reform.

It is chilling to think juveniles – even children – may be capable of the kind of cruelty some have perpetrated over the years.

A case in point is the 1993 murder of toddler Jamie Bulger. His killers, who had spent the better part of two days physically and sexually abusing him before committing the final act, were both ten years old at the time. They had enticed Jamie, a month short of his third birthday, away from a mall where his mother had let go of his hand for what would become the most significant seconds of their lives.

Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were tried as adults, but sentenced as children. They became the youngest murder convicts in England, and were released on parole after eight years in reform centres, without ever having seen the inside of a prison for adults.

Thompson was so conniving, even as a child, that days after torturing and killing Jamie, he left flowers at the memorial site.

Since their release, Venables has been arrested twice for breaching the terms of his parole – both times for possession of child pornography. His latest imprisonment is for a mere 40 months.

Perhaps we should acknowledge that some people are not capable of reform at all, however young they were at the time of commission of crime.

It takes a special kind of wiring to be able to do the things that prompted a death sentence, and that cannot be changed in prison or reform homes. Perhaps the world is best off without people wired that way.

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