The death penalty


Sir,– Prof Ian O’Donnell’s article on death row (Opinion & Analysis, August 8th)is erudite, compassionate and enlightened. It is intriguing that prisoners develop coping mechanisms while on death row but, overall, capital punishment is still cruel, unusual and barbaric.

Amnesty International reports that, despite positive moves towards abolition in many parts of the world, the number of reported executions rose by almost 15 per cent in 2013. In that year at least 778 people were executed worldwide. This figure excludes the numbers executed in China, which are estimated to be in the thousands. Almost 80 per cent of reported executions occurred in Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Japan and the US were the only G8 countries to perform executions in 2013. Even in the US, the practice is in decline: Maryland became the 18th abolitionist state in May 2013. Nevertheless, there were 39 executions in the US last year, in Alabama (1), Arizona (2), Florida (7), Georgia (1), Ohio (3), Oklahoma (6), Missouri (2), Virginia (1) and Texas (16).

Our research group at UCD (with Dr Sharon Foley) has demonstrated that, in Texas, execution is usually preceded by over 10 years spent on death row, with strong evidence of prisoners experiencing high levels of psychological suffering. Most have mental illness and virtually all have histories of severe head injury. The suicide rate on death row is up to five times that of the general US male population.

While prisoners who are executed have usually been convicted of exceptionally cruel and unusual crimes, resulting in death and inestimable suffering, it is utterly illogical and morally repugnant to use such cruel and unusual acts as justification for further cruel and unusual acts, such as killing the prisoner. In addition, the possibility of judicial error is as real as it is horrific.

Against this background, recent hand-wringing in the US over what are perceived to be cruel and unusual execution methods appears to be a primitive defence mechanism used to protect human consciences from an even more cruel, unusual and utterly irreducible fact: another human is being killed. – Yours, etc,


Department of

Adult Psychiatry,

University College,