Spare Saddam?

In August, Michael Fullilove wrote a Lowy Institute report, arguing that Australia would be a far more effective advocate of death penalty abolition if we brought some consistency to our international pleas – arguing for accused persons to be spared whether we liked them or not.

Philip Ruddock, now’s your chance to earn your Amnesty badge….

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37 Responses to Spare Saddam?

  1. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Now, Andrew you should know better. One doesn’t earn an Amesty badge, one buys an Amesty badge. Even I have one 🙂 mind you, not the gold one.

  2. Bring Back EP at LP says:

    in this instance the punishment fits the crime.

  3. Norm says:

    BBEL’s comment – ‘in this instance’ – highlights the problem. Either be opposed to the death penalty, irrespective of the crime, or support it, as BBEL does – in which case you let judges decide in what instances it is to be used. Put me down for the former, thanks.

  4. Guy says:

    I wouldn’t hold your breath Andrew.

  5. derrida derider says:

    Andrew – you should indeed know better. Having a “flexible” approach lets Mr Howard play politics – “on principle” he can push for beautiful young models caught smuggling drugs to be spared, while expressing our tabloid-driven desire for vengeance on “terrorists” of a differing skin colour to us.

    As I’ve said previously, he has a real gift for hypocrisy.

  6. Michael Moriarty says:

    Punishment Suits the Crime

    We as a nation need to be consistent in the portrayal of our nations’ morals and ethics. As a people our opposition to the death penalty has to be universal. Be it the case of a woman being stoned to death for committing adultery, or the execution of a global terrorist.

    My personal views are not at issue here. The government of the day has a duty to express and reflect the views of a notion. It has a right and indeed an obligation to champion justice and equality as defined by our standards.

    As much as we abhor inhuman behaviour and violations of human rights we can not be inhuman in our treatment of the violators.

    Emotional responses while expected and understandable they are in the cold light of day wrong.

    I am opposed to the death penalty on moral grounds. We are long since past being barbarians.

    Can you actually see us ever being vocal in our opposition to the cruel and inhuman punishment to crime regardless of the crime? Is any crime so bad, so as to allow the person committing the crime to be stoned to death.

    We either oppose the death penalty or we don’t there is and will never be a middle ground.

  7. rossco says:

    Ruddock has an Amnesty badge because he is a member, he hasn’t just “bought” a badge. Amnesty International has a long standing policy of total opposition to the death penalty under any circumstances.
    If Ruddock does not agree with that policy he should resign, but he won’t because he is just an utter hypocrite. I understand Amnesty has examined whether it can give him the boot but concluded it would be a denial of his human rights and it is not worth going to court over it.

  8. Sinclair Davidson says:

    ‘The government of the day has a duty to express and reflect the views of a notion.[nation?]’

    I don’t know this is a good argument. According to the AES 2004, over 50% of voters support or strongly support the death penalty being introduced for murder.

    ‘We either oppose the death penalty or we don’t there is and will never be a middle ground.’

    This is very strong statement from what is, according to the AES, a minority view – only 16% of voters strongly oppose the death penalty. There is an argument about executing innocent people. I think that argument is over-stated, but it is a valid concern. Saddam is not an innocent man. I think many people can agree that the risks associated with the death penalty are too high to use in general law enforcement, but that individuals who are so heineous that there is no doubt of their guilt can and should be executed. Saddam, Osama bin Laden, and a few others are uncontroversially in that category.

  9. Bring Back EP at LP says:

    Sinkers no-one here is saying that the death penalty should be levied except where the punishment fits the crime.
    This man had no regard to his fellow man. He has been found to be responsible to have many put to death.

    The only punishment that fits this crime is the death of that said person.

    We are not relying on intuition but hard gained evidence.

  10. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Homer – I understand that. But there are people saying Saddam shouldn’t be executed. I’m happy for Saddam to hang. I’m also saying that some people can support the death penalty for the likes of Saddam, but not support it generally.

  11. Bring Back EP at LP says:

    sorry Sinkers.

    Perhaps people don’t understand the term punishment fit the crime.

  12. Jane Simpson says:

    We have laws saying that Australia cannot execute anyone; we get upset when other countries execute Australians, and so the least we can do is argue that Saddam Hussein should get life imprisonment.

  13. Michael Moriarty says:

    Nation was the intended word. Though I suspect that you and every one who reads the post would accept that it was a simple typo.

    I see that the fascination for quoting statistics data out of context continues to be a tool all too often over used. Support for the death penalty stands at 51.5% according to that survey. It is down from 56.0 % in 2001 and from 69% in 1993.

    You would suspect that the question would have had even more in favour of if it was “Do you think Saddam should be executed if found guilty”?

    Let’s simply agree that if the question was slanted a certain way I could achieve a result that would show that substantially less were in favour.

    Does the crime merit the punishment I’m sorry but this is simply not the point. Is the punishment cruel or unusual? The death penalty is both of these. I do not think as a matter of law that Australians are protected from punishment that is “Cruel or Unusual” I do believe that we should be but that is a matter for a different discussion.

    You can not or should not allow your own indignity at the egregious nature of a crime to be our modifiers. Where do we draw the line in the sand?

    My issue has nothing to do with the crime it has to do with the punishment. A civilised society should not have a death penalty, only a vengeful one need embrace it.

  14. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Michael – I wasn’t trying to score a cheap point, just making sure that ‘notion’ was a typo and not some other meaning.

  15. Michael Moriarty says:


    “I wasn’t trying to score a cheap point”

    Fair enuf I was way to fast to jump on the defensive.

  16. Bring Back EP at LP says:


    you are missing the point.

    Is the punishment justice?

    That is the question that needs to be answered as I stated before does the punishment fit the crime.
    Putting a person to do death has nothing to do with vengeance but all to do with justice.

    In this case Hussein showed he had little regard for human life.

  17. Michael Moriarty says:

    Justice : A principal of being MORALLY correct. It is still not the point.

    The mark of a man is that he can argue some thing that is repugnant because of a moral conviction.

    If we are in favour of Human Rights then we have to be so all the time. Your argument about Punishment V Crime is mute. You are in favour of suspending Human Rights on a whim. The ability to support these rights are even more difficult to make when the person charged had a total disregard for such rights.

    I realise that very few people will take my point even fewer will publicly support it. Just because some people are hypocrites we don’t all need to be. It is very good politics to support this execution and what the hell it wont loose you any votes.

    This is why Australia has no Bill of Rights. Other wise we might actually have to be seen to support such rights.

  18. Sinclair Davidson says:

    ‘This is why Australia has no Bill of Rights. Other wise we might actually have to be seen to support such rights.’

    I don’t know Michael. it really depends how you define ‘rights’. The US has a bill of rights and the death penalty.

  19. Michael Moriarty says:


    Even the Americans seem to be coming around :

    In the recent decision in Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the execution of minors is unconstitutional. The Court has further defined what “cruel and unusual punishment” means for those convicted of a capital offense for a crime they committed while still a minor. This lesson explores the case and the decision.

    Small step but one in the right direction just the same.

  20. Sinclair Davidson says:

    5 – 4 hardly fills me with confidence. But abstracting from that. Saddam is not a minor. I think many people who would consider themselves moral would still be happy for him to hang.

    on another point, I was told that the US abolished the death penalty in Iraq but that the new government reinstated it. Is this correct – can anyone say for sure?

  21. Yobbo says:

    We have laws saying that Australia cannot execute anyone; we get upset when other countries execute Australians

    Australians get upset when other countries execute Australians for relatively minor, victimless crimes like Drug Trafficking.

    If an Australian went into a School in the US and shot 25 kids, You wouldn’t hear a peep out of the majority in Australia when he subsequently was sentenced to lethal injection.

    Saddam killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Hanging is probably too good for him.

  22. Grumpy old economist says:

    Derrida Derider says

    “Mr Howard play politics – “on principle” he can push for beautiful young models caught smuggling drugs to be spared, while expressing our tabloid-driven desire for vengeance on “terrorists” of a differing skin colour to us.

    As I’ve said previously, he has a real talent for hypocrisy.”

    Its simple DD. There is no hypocrisy. Our Government asks for Australians to be spared the death penalty (even requesting the US Government not to ask for the death penalty for David Hicks). It never intervenes when a country’s courts sentence one of its own citizens to death. As a practical matter, that would be very time consuming, as China alone executes thousands every year. I don’t think Saddam is an Australian citizen.

  23. Grumpy old economist says:

    Actually, why out of the 20,000 people on death row and the 5,000 sentenced to death annually, why are you making a fuss about this one? (

  24. Jason Soon says:

    Let me get this straight, DD. You’re comparing a smuggler of drugs to a practitioner of mass murder? I believe in legalising drugs. Selling them to consenting adults is qualitatively different from razing villages to the ground. Thus there is no inconsistency in my not giving a stuff for Saddam and for caring about the fate of some foolish Australian tourist in Bali.

    And what’s all this rubbish about either being for the death penalty in all cases or being against it in all cases? The strongest argument against *normalised use of the death penalty in domestic criminal cases* is that
    1) errors can be made
    2) the death penalty is irreversible.
    If not for this consideration, the death penalty can be justified as an efficient deterrent. But there is a strong case for erring on the side of using deterrents that can be almost as effective but which don’t involve the judicial system in being a party to so many horrific errors.

    Where the death penalty is used in special cases to try war criminals (as was used in the Nuremberg trials), these considerations do not apply because

    1) the number of times such trials happen is far,far less than the number of trials for possible domestic capital crimes like murder;
    2) there is especially great scrutiny to ensure the right verdict is reached

    These considerations don’t apply.

  25. Grumpy old economist says:


    I don’t quite follow the logic of your arguments against the death penalty, as they would apply equally against imprisonment (usually the suggested alternative to the death penalty). That is, errors can be made and time spent in prison is irreversible.

    But one thing is clear, more innocent people end up dying when we don’t have the death penalty because:
    1. The death penalty deters murders
    2. Some convicted killers allowed to live go on to kill again: in prison, when escaping and on release. Many more innocent people die this way than are wrongfully killed under the death penalty.

    That is, the death penalty certainly deters those put to death from killing again.

  26. Jason Soon says:

    I agree that the death penalty has a strong deterrent effect. I’m making a judgement based on the tradeoffs. My judgement is that
    1) the additional deterrent effect of using the death penalty vs using other non-lethal substitutes is not worth
    2) creating a situation where some innocents will be wrongfully killed as opposed to simply being wrongfully imprisoned.

    Time spent in prison is compensable, just like any other tort. Wrongful imprisonment is basically a tort.

    Being killed isn’t compensable. It’s the ultimate end to your utility curve!

  27. Grumpy old economist says:

    Good point that false imprisonment can be compensated.

    But it is not true that the death penalty “creates a situation where some innocents will be wrongfully killed”. You could just as easily say abolishing the death penalty creates a situation where some innocents will be murdered. Innocent people will be killed no matter what policy you adopt. Surely the moral thing to do is to minimise the number of dead innocent people? My point is that the death penalty does that.

  28. Jason Soon says:

    Perhaps that can be framed better.
    But I think there is a difference between refraining from putting the State in a situation where it is actively engaged in wrongful killing VS not fully minimising the number of innocent deaths. Not making this distinction could land you in a lot of trouble don’t you think, as it would mean you would have make everything in public policy a burning moral issue.

  29. Michael G says:

    Jason or GOE, could you post a link to your favourite study (or blog discussion) demonstrating the detterence effect of the Death Penalty?

  30. Grumpy old economist says:

    It is the death penalty opponents who try to turn it into a burning moral issue. I think my framing of the issue puts it more as a practical public policy matter, which turns on things like empirical evidence (eg just how many murders does an execution deter, how many people are falsely executed, and how many people do convicted murders go on to kill after their conviction?).

  31. Grumpy old economist says:


    You could start at the series of posts on the Becker-posner blog

  32. JW says:


    I think you can actually infer from the empirical evidence provided by the US that the death penalty is inefficient.

    Because of the finality of the death penalty – because “death is different” – US courts have held that death sentences need to be subjected to multiple layers of judicial review prior to the sentence being carried out.

    For example, say someone commits a capital crime in a death penalty state. First there is the guilt phase trial. If convicted, there is then a sentencing phase trial. Following that, the convict has an automatic constitutional right to a de novo appeal before the full bench of the supreme court of the state where he was sentenced. “De novo” means the court goes back to square one, and reviews all of the facts and all of the law before deciding whether the sentence is fair or not. This is an arduous process.

    Then, if the sentence still stands after it has worked its way through the state courts, the convict can at this stage commence his direct appeals to federal court. These appeals usually proceed through district court to federal appellate court and eventually receive at least a cursory glance from the Supreme Court of the United States. Once these appeals have failed, the convict can then commence his habeas corpus appeals in federal court. If that fails, there is a final, and sometimes lengthy, process during which the attention of the senior executive (the governor and his staff) is required to review the factual and legal basis of the prisoner’s appeals for clemency.

    When that is concluded – and the whole process can typically take a quarter of a century! – the prisoner may be executed.

    There is no short-circuiting of the process, even if the convict is obviously guilty of a heinous crime.

    And every stage of the process requires a veritable battalion of lawyers: defence lawyers, prosecution lawyers, and judges. These are typically some of the best and most senior lawyers, and every day they spend arguing a decade old DP case is a day they aren’t contributing more meaningfully to society.

    So if the death penalty is to be applied at all coherently, and according to even the most marginal standards of decency, enormous sums must be expended to see it carried out.

    And even then the death penalty still ends up being applied in an arbitrary and inconsistent fashion, thus undermining its deterrent effect. Not all of the worst criminals get death, and not everyone who gets death is in the worst category of criminal.

    Now if there were no death penalty, the whole trial process would end immediately after the guilt phase, when the judge would sentence the convict to a jail term. Unless the convict had some substantial legal or factual grounds for appeal, that would be it – there would be no automatic appeals. Case closed. The convict would go to prison and serve out his time.

    My view – and it’s based on a counterfactual hypothesis but, IMHO, is nonetheless supported by common sense as well as the empirical record – is that spending so much money on death penalty appeals is an inefficient use of resources. Sums spent on legal fees are sums that are not available to spend on, for example, education, neo-natal health care, juvenile diversion programs or any other sort of plan that could reasonably be expected to bring about a reduction in violent crime rates.

    (And if I can be so impudent as to challenge the methodology of Becker and Posner, I think their insistence on attempting to measure the effectiveness of the death penalty by measuring its deterrent effect is misguided. First, deterrence is very hard to measure and I find their assessment of deterrence unconvincing. Second, I don’t think they do a true cost/benefit analysis – their analysis seems to be focussed on “does DP save more lives than it takes”, without taking into account that if the DP saves one life through deterrence but at a much higher cost than a life could be saved by instead allocating those resources to something else – medicine for example – then it is an inefficient allocation of resources. But it is many months since I read their DP posts so I might be misrepresenting their argument.)


  33. Grumpy old economist says:

    It may be that the restrictions imposed on the use of the death penalty in the US have made it inefficient (that certainly is the objective of the death penalty opponents who have been instrumental in imposing these delays). But that doesn’t mean the death penalty is inefficient. That would be like saying that because American roads are congested to the point of inefficiency, that we shouldn’t build any roads. Actually, the fact that US studies pick up a deterrence effect despite these restrictions is testimony to the power of the death penalty to deter.

    And what evidence do you have for your statement that
    “And even then the death penalty still ends up being applied in an arbitrary and inconsistent fashion, thus undermining its deterrent effect. Not all of the worst criminals get death, and not everyone who gets death is in the worst category of criminal.”

    Is the death penalty applied in more inconsistently that length of prison sentence?

  34. JW says:

    1. I am taking the American system as representing the minimal level of safeguards that most people would find acceptable. Sure, you could impose some restrictions on the appeals but given the finality of the death penalty you are going to want to have multiple levels of review of the sentence. I can’t imagine Australia (for example) adopting a DP system that has fewer safeguards than the US and it is the building in of the safeguards that makes it inefficient.

    You are not going to have a fair DP system that does not involve a hell of a lot of litigation.

    2. it is a fact that there are many people on death row for crimes such as robberies which go wrong, ending in death – i.e., no premeditation, no sadism, no torture, a single victim, crim has little or no record at the same time as there is a huge number of heinous, sadistic murderers who cop pleas or for whatever reason get sentences less than death.

    Is it more inconsistent than prison sentences? In many cases no. But the consequences are more severe. And to me there is something more perverse about applying DP inconsistently than a prison sentence.

    I am not opposed to DP in all circumstances (I think it could be appropriate for Saddam, for example).

    And I suppose with DNA etc it could be possible to structure it to be efficient and reliable.

    But the US represents the biggest experiment in the death penalty in the western world. So the US has to in many ways serve as the model for whether it can be done efficiently. And in the US it is vastly inefficient.

    If you can devise a more efficient way to do it, go ahead.

  35. Andrew Leigh says:

    I’ll just briefly chime in to mention what I think is the best study on the deterrent effect of the US death penalty. John Donohue and Justin Wolfers review all the natural experiments and relevant publications, and find no good evidence in favour of the proposition that the US death penalty deters.

    Naturally, that’s not a killer argument (sorry) on the Saddam question. But it is relevant to thinking about the death penalty in the US. I think Becker and Posner get most things right, but on this issue, I think their blog postings were off the mark.

  36. Jason Soon says:

    I agree that in practice use of the death penalty will be inefficient for exactly the reasons you cite. That is why I think there is no need to use in normal criminal cases. But my argument still stands. In a war crimes setting these argument don’t apply.

  37. JW says:

    Jason, agreed – I wasn’t trying to make a point about Iraq, and I do think that the outcomes sought in the domestic criminal justice setting are completely different from the outcomes sought in the war crimes setting. Efficiency isn’t really a concern in the latter.

    It is certainly possibly to be strongly opposed to the death penalty as a domestic punishment but still see the need for its use in the case of (e.g.) Saddam. (not saying that the best thing to do is to hang Saddam – rather that the domestic analysis does not apply equally to his situation.)

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