It’s been 33 years since capital punishment was removed from the Canadian Criminal Code.
Since then, according to Statistics Canada, the murder rate has declined a lot: from 3.0 homicides per 100,000 people in the 1970s to 1.85 in 2006 (the latest year for which statistics are available).
That suggests getting rid of the death penalty was a smart move, doesn’t it?
Well, probably it was.
After all, it’s easier for Canada to portray itself as a modern, humane country now that it no longer puts people to death.
And if the death penalty has little or no deterrent value, then what is the point of hanging criminals or injecting them with a fatal dose of drugs?
Well, there might be one point. It’s ugly, but it’s a point nonetheless.
Countries that embrace capital punishment have a means of getting rid of human garbage (that term may not be nice, but there’s no nice way to describe such people).
Consider John Allen Muhammad, for instance.
The mastermind of the 2002 Washington, D.C.-area sniper attacks will die by lethal injection on Nov. 10.
He’s scheduled to be executed for the slaying of Dean Harold Meyers at a gas station during a string of shootings, but most people consider him responsible for a three-week killing spree that left 10 people dead in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
When he dies, the world will have lost nothing except for a vicious killer.
That said, many people believe capital punishment demeans society in general because it essentially turns average citizens into killers (the state kills in their name).
In Canada, crimes of murder, treason and rape carried the death penalty in Upper and Lower Canada as early as 1865.
As of 1966, capital punishment in Canada was limited to those convicted of the killing of on-duty police officers and prison guards.
Now it’s completely forbidden.
So, today, we must feed and house people like child killer Clifford Olson in our prisons.
Then again, if we were to reintroduce capital punishment, there is no question the state would end up executing some innocent people.
Remember our justice system is responsible for wrongfully convicting David Milgaard, Donald Marshall Jr., Guy Paul Morin and Thomas Sophonow, to name just a few.
The justice system will never be a perfect solution to the wrongs of a society.
But every time a particularly horrifying crime occurs — such as the murder or sexual assault of a child — it brings the reintroduction of capital punishment back into debate.
The merits of capital punishment will likely never outweigh its disadvantages, but when one compares the American practice with the Canadian one, it sure gives a person pause.
Obviously, there are no easy solutions to this conundrum, but maybe the issue should be reviewed by Parliament every decade or so. Capital punishment may not suit our society today, but it might in the future.
Lee Giles is an Advocate editor.