Today, I’ll share my thought on using death sentence in writing, including the impact of setting and culture on the (dis)favor of death sentence.
Death sentence was widely used in Earth’s history and went on decline only ‘recently’ (since 18th century). Approach to it varies by location, culture, and beliefs. These three aspects should be reflected in writing, should the author decide to use such a moment. Likewise, different execution methods are preferred in different situations. Those are also limited by the setting (fantasy or historical settings won’t probably feature guns or electric chairs).
The arguments used in favor of death sentence are several: no risk of repeated crime, lower cost (compared to lifelong imprisonment), or setting an example to deter other potential offenders. Likewise, there are several arguments against it, such as: the sentence is irreversible in case of error, potential discrimination, taking away the criminal’s chance to reform, or reducing justice to revenge. Eventually, in a fictional society, it’ll be down to which of those are more important to their leaders. Same with what crimes are worthy of the ultimate sentence.
Another fact to consider are the readers: most present-time countries are against death sentence and so using it for small crimes and shock value might alienate the readers. Hence, it carries some risks. Without significant risks (regarding the reaction of readers), death sentence can be used for crimes against humanity/war crimes and (repeated offenders of) violent crimes such as murder, rape, kidnapping, or torture. Likewise, treason can be punishable by death in several societies.
There can also be an aspect of choice, weird as it might sound: in one fantasy book I’ve been reading, there was an irreparable rapist (the acts were not shown directly, though), who was given the choice to lose either his penis or his head (in modern setting, chemical castration could be an option).
Death sentence, especially if carried out on the spot, requires some specific character traits for those executing the criminals – it would do no well if it induced guilt. This collateral damage might be another factor against death sentence. One of the fantasy books featuring a death sentence had a character say something along the lines of if you sentence someone to death, you should be willing to carry it out yourself – something that points out the fact that the one making the choice needs to stand behind it and believe it’s the best way.
A shift in opinion
One thing I’ve been exploring in my writing was a situation where someone generally against death sentence might vouch for it, especially in cases where long-term inprisonment would carry significant dangers. I’ll use a quote from the first draft of my to-be book two for this purpose:
“If we lock them up for half of their life or more, what hope is there for them to reform? What hope is there that they won’t be even more dangerous after? What hope is there that they’ll see a motivation to reform instead of bitterness when they are released?Taken from the first draft of Eternal Defenders book two.
Keeping them together in the prison, even if separated enough, would mean that, sooner or later, we’ll let caged monsters back into the world, at least some of them hungry for revenge. Death sentence feels like better step for safety of our lands in the long term, if it’s used in extreme situations like this.”
This eventually gets me to genre specifics. Historical fiction shold follow what is known about its setting and stay true to it – medieval times favored death sentence and torture; using today’s standards would be inconsistent.
Likewise, Sci-Fi and fantasy might have offenses that are not present in our world. By this, I don’t mean magical ways of murder or torture but completely ‘new’ offenses – such as mind control. Whether magically or techincally induced, using someone else to do the dirty work might be seen as acombination of two highly despicable crimes: violation of someone’s mind and the crime perpetraded through it (which would most likely be violent).
Fantasy and Sci-Fi allow some other possibilities for crimes unseen in reality such as draining the victim’s power/energy, new forms of unethical experiments, necromancy, and possibly more. Some of them might (again, depending on the fictional society) be worth the ultimate sentence.
To wrap this up: as with any potentially sensitive topic, death sentence should, first and foremost, stay true to the setting. And, as usual, I’ll welcome your opinions on this matter.