Death penalty: How do we handle psychopaths?

Source :SIFY
Author :SIFY
Last Updated: Thu, Mar 26th, 2020, 11:29:49hrs

The hanging to death of the convicts in the Delhi bus rape case—with the exception of the “juvenile” who could be anyone you meet, and one convict who committed suicide in prison—has raised the question of capital punishment yet again.

Over the last several months, the convicts took turns appealing their sentence, in order to postpone their hanging for as long as possible. Were they taunting the family of their victim for one last time, drawing out their pain as they made a mockery of the judicial system? Or is it proof that they are subject to one human emotion, however lacking they may be of others—fear?

There have been various arguments against capital punishment, and most stem from the idea that the death sentence is either punitive or cautionary: the crime must be punished, and the punishment must serve as deterrent.

When the crime is punished, it serves three purposes: showing the criminal he cannot get away with murder or worse; giving the victims or those they have left behind a sense of justice or revenge; proving that the letter of the law is valid.

The notion of punishment as deterrent derives from the fact that people who identify with the victim and are terrified of being next will be reassured that the perpetrators can’t get away scot-free, while those who identify with the criminals might think twice about replicating their actions.

Perhaps the reason capital punishment was first introduced in society was something far more simple: to get the criminal off the streets and to ensure that whether someone else replicated his actions or not, he couldn’t do so himself.

For someone to have committed a crime which qualifies for the “rarest of rare” category, one must be a psychopath, a shade darker than a sociopath. While the latter are believed by psychiatrists to have a smidgen of conscience, the psychopath is untroubled by the burden of conscience.

Medical research, albeit at its nascent stage, indicates that the brain of a psychopath works differently from the average human brain both structurally and functionally. Scenes of violence and horror prompted the opposite reactions in diagnosed psychopaths to the reactions in the control group: the sight of blood and suffering calmed them down, rather than make them anxious.

Both in literature and cinema, psychopaths have been romanticised to a large extent.

We like to neatly pick apart their lives and trace each cruel impulse to particular incidents of childhood suffering. Films become box office successes with this storyline. Actors win Academy Awards playing psychopaths with empathy.

A case in point is The Joker. Joaquin Phoenix, off-screen, is one of the most empathetic people in the world—for decades, he has been a vocal advocate of animal rights and veganism. In his Oscar acceptance speech, he used the opportunity to speak about speciesism. But the fact that an actor of his nature chose to portray a character no one would want to meet on the streets endows that character with some of the empathy we associate with Phoenix. It reassures us that The Joker is not only human, but a better human than many we know—deep inside.

There are women who are addicted to writing love letters to prisoners on death row, probably drawn to the high drama of a tragic end to a bizarre romance or probably because they have a Prince Charming complex, wanting to rescue their beloved psychopaths from the wickedness of the latter’s own minds. The Paperboy (2012) is one of the few films that portrays the most likely end to such a romance.

For centuries, the world has been trying to figure out how to deal with psychopaths. For every person who believes they should either be buried six feet under, or be locked into a room and have the key thrown away, there is one or more person who believes that they are capable of reform, and must be given a second chance, that depraved behaviour is not necessarily indicative of a depraved mind.

In a country overcrowded with people, jails can barely accommodate all the criminals who should be kept away from society. And the criminals behind bars are only those who have been caught; there are others who are still at large, never having been caught or punished; there are yet others who have served their time and got out.

Take, for instance, Sohanlal Bhartha Valmiki, the man who assaulted nurse Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug at the King Edwards Memorial Hospital in Bombay, in November 1973. He strangled her with a dog chain as he sodomised her, and then stole her earrings. The chain cut off her oxygen supply, causing her to become blind, deaf, and paralysed.

Valmiki was charged with attempted murder and theft the next year. The sodomy was not taken into account, and he was not charged with rape. He walked out of jail in 1980, while Aruna Shanbaug remained in a vegetative state for 42 years.

In a country with so many criminals, so many prospective victims, and so many loopholes in its laws, how do we keep the psychopaths off the streets?

More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:

Nobel for economist, tailspin for economy 

Why the Diaspora has so much love to give 

Hindi debate: We are all obsessed with homogeneity

We are choking the earth 

When Kamal Haasan endorsed harassment

The Dalai Lama and the death of humour

The delusionary Indian intellectual 

India's culture of worship has to end



Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: