Origin of the Death Penalty
The death penalty or the capital punishment has been used as a method of crime deterrence since the very earlier societies. “A life for a life” has been one of the most basic concepts for dealing with crime since the start of recorded history. Historical records show that even the most ancient primitive tribes utilized methods of punishing wrong doers, which includes taking their lives to pay for the crimes they committed.
In the early days, the death penalty was a common response to a variety of crimes such as sexual assault, treason, and various military offences.
Written rules were created to notify the people about the penalties they would face for participating in any of these misdeeds. One of the earliest written documents that supported the death penalty was the code of Hammurabi, which was written on stone tablets around 1760 BC. It contained 282 laws that were collected by the Babylonian king. Hammurabi, including the theory of an “eye for an eye” several other ancient documents supported capital punishment, including the Jewish Torah, Christian old Testament, and the writings of an Athenian legislator named Draco, who proposed the death penalty for a large variety of misdeeds in ancient Greece.
Early forms of capital punishment included stoning, crucifixion, burning at the stake, crushing by elephant, boiling to death, flaying, slow slicing, disembowelment, impalement, sawing, and decapitation, blowing from a gun, scaphism, neck lacing and dismemberment.
Under the Nigeria Law, the introduction by the British of the criminal and Penal Codes, both of which are based upon the common law principles came with it a number of capital crimes, the death penalty were prescribed for a range of criminal offences.
The Southern criminal code prescribes the death penalty for murder, treachery, treason and participating in a trial or deal resulting in death. While under the Northern Penal Code, giving false evidence in a trial which leads to the execution of an innocent person, abetting the suicide of a minor, a mentally abnormal or drunken person, and in the case of a person already serving a life sentence, attempting to commit culpable homicide, sodomy, adultery, apostasy, rebellion and highway robbery, kidnapping also has been added as an offence attracting the death penalty in five eastern states.
Meaning and Nature of Death Penalty
For the purpose of an already stated definition, death penalty is a legal process whereby a person is put to death by the state as a punishment for a crime. It is a death imposed punishment for crime committed. The judicial decree that someone be punished in that manner is a death sentence, while the actual process of killing the person is an execution.
For the purpose of emphasis it needs to be restated here that under the Nigerian Law, the death Penalty is very much recognized. This is made obvious by the provisions of section 33(1) of the constitution which states that
Every person has a right to life, and no one shall be deprived intentionally of his life, save in execution of the sentence of a court in respect of a criminal offence of which he has been found guilty in Nigeria.
Its subsection (2) states that “A person shall not be regarded as having been deprived of this life in contravention of this section, if he dies as a result of the use, to such extent and in such circumstance as are permitted by law, of such force as is reasonably necessary:
a. For the defense of any person from unlawful violence or for the defense of property.
b. In order to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained; or
c. For the purpose of suppressing a riot, in surjection or muting.
This provision asserts that everyone has the right to life and then sets out grounds under which a person may be lawfully be deprived of his life which includes a sentence of the court.
The offences that carry the death penalty under the Nigerian Criminal Justice System are armed robbery, murder, treason, conspiracy to treason, instigating invasion of Nigeria, treachery, fabrication of false evidence leading to the conviction to death of an innocent person, aiding suicide of a child or lunatic7. Under the various Sharia Penal regime application to 12 states (Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Kaduna, Kano Kebbi, Jigawa, Niger, Sokoto, Yobe and Zamfara) in the Northern Nigeria, the offences that carry the death Penalty are; Zina (adultery), rape, sodomy, incest, witchcraft and Juju offences. Kidnapping has also been recently added by Amnesty International, in 2009 as an offence which can attract the death Penalty in such states, as Abia, Akwa Ibom, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo States.
It is germane and imperative to note that the death Penalty does not include minors or under aged persons. A young person under the age of 17 convicted of a capital offence must not be sentenced to death, but detained at the pleasure of the state Governor. By amendment to the children & Young Persons Law of some states, the age has been increased to 18 years. According to the criminal procedure Act, age is the age at the time of conviction.
Under the Sharia Law applicable in some states, Juveniles who committed offences after reaching puberty or some age of responsibility could be executed. The Criminal Procedure Act provides that pregnant women cannot be sentenced to death and their sentences should be committed to life imprisonment instead.8 Nigeria is also under treaty obligation not to execute women with nursing children; people who due to mental disease or natural infirmity, lack capacity to understand or control their actions are excluded from criminal liability; those who are deluded can be criminally responsible only insofar as consistent with their delusions; and individuals may be found incompetent to stand trial.
Under the Nigeria Criminal Justice System, only the superior courts can award the death penalty. An appeal from a sentence of death pronounced by a Federal High Court lies as of right to the court of Appeal and then to the Supreme Court.