The Death Penalty: A Compendium of Quotes

You may have heard about the botched execution earlier this week in Oklahoma. Clayton Lockett, a convicted murderer and rapist, was scheduled to die by lethal injection. For the first time, Oklahoma used a new, three-drug cocktail. Witnesses to the execution have said that after the drugs were administered, Lockett thrashed on the gurney, writhed, convulsed, and groaned for a full 43 minutes before he died of a heart attack.

As a result, Oklahoma declined to carry out the execution of another convicted murderer and rapist, Charles Warner, scheduled for later in the day.

The incident has reignited the debated over the death penalty. Some for argue that Lockett, who kidnapped, beat, gang raped and shot a 19-year-old girl, and then stood by while his friends buried her alive, got what he deserved despite the complications. Others maintain that regardless of the heinous nature of a crime, the death penalty is inhumane.

While there is no consensus on this issue within Buddhism, there are many, including myself, who believe that the death penalty is inconsistent with Buddhist teachings. I would imagine that the majority of my readers share reservations about the death penalty, so I’m not going to offer an argument today against it. Rather, I thought it would be interesting to present a compilation of quotes I put together some years ago. Most are Buddhist, but I have included some non-Buddhist statements against the death penalty as well.

“Putting away the killing of living things, Gotama the recluse holds aloof from the destruction of life. He has laid the cudgel and the sword aside, and ashamed of roughness, and full of mercy, he dwells compassionate and kind to all creatures that have life.’ It is thus that the unconverted man, when speaking in praise of the Tathâgata, might speak.”

– The Brahma-gala Sutta

“O! Bhikkhus, even if robbers cut your limbs one after another with a two handled saw, if your mind be defiled on account of that, you have not done the duty in my dispensation. Even then you should train thus: Our minds will not change, we will not utter evil words. We will abide compassionate with thoughts of loving kindness not angry. We will pervade that person with thoughts of loving kindness. With that same sign, grown great and developed extensively, I pervade and abide. Bhikkhus, you should train thus.”

– The Kakacuupamasutta of the Majjhima Nikaya

“Now when Prince Janasandha came of age, and had returned from Takkasila, where he had been educated in all accomplishments, the king gave a general pardon to all prisoners, and gave him the viceroyalty. Afterwards when his father died, he became king, and then he caused to be built six almonries . . . There day by day he used to distribute six hundred pieces of money and stirred up all India with his almsgiving: the prison doors he opened for good and all, the places of execution he destroyed . . . ”

– The Janasandha-Jataka

“O King, out of compassion you should always keep your mind focused upon altruism, even for all those beings who have committed the most serious crimes.

Generate compassion particularly for those who have committed the foul deed of murderer; those who have fallen into ruin are deserving of a great person’s compassion.”

– Nagarjuna, The Precious Garland

“This king governs without decapitation or corporal punishments. Criminals are simply fined, lightly or heavily, according to the circumstances. Even in cases of repeated attempts at wicked rebellion, they only have their right hands cut off . . . Throughout the country the people do not kill any living creature . . .”

– Fa-Hsien (337?-422?), a monk who was an early Chinese pilgrim to India, writing of a compassionate Buddhist king

“The national laws of the five regions of India prescribe no cangue, beatings or prison. Those who are guilty are fined in accordance with the degree of the offence committed. There is no capital punishment.”

– Hye Ch’o, an eighth-century Korean monk, who also made a pilgrimage to India, describing Buddhist kings in central India who ruled without a death penalty. In Korea in 1036, Buddhists monks actually succeeded in getting the death penalty abolished

“My overriding belief is that is always possible for criminals to improve and that by its very finality the death penalty contradicts this. Therefore, I support those organizations and individuals who are trying to bring an end to the use of the death penalty.”

“The death penalty fulfills a preventive function, but it is also very clearly a form of revenge. It is an especially severe form of punishment because it is so final. The human life is ended and the executed person is deprived of the opportunity to change, to restore the harm done or compensate for it.”

“Criminals, people who commit crimes, usually society rejects these people. They are also part of our society. Give them some form of punishment to say they were wrong, but show them they are part of society and can change. Show them compassion.”

– The Dalai Lama

Q: What are your views on capital punishment? Suppose someone has killed ten children. Why should he be allowed to live on?

A: Ten people are dead; now you want another one, you want eleven. A person who has killed ten children is a sick person. Of course we want to lock him up to prevent him killing more, but that is a sick person, and we have to find ways to help that person. Killing him does not help him, and does not help us . . . Therefore, looking at him, we can see in the light of interbeing the other elements that have produced him. That is how your understanding arises in yourself, and then you see that that person is there for you to help, and not to punish. Of course you have to lock him up for the safety of other children, but locking him up is not the only thing you can do. We can do other things to help him. Punishing is not the only thing, we can do much better.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh

“Within Buddhism, there are ten fundamental precepts, and the first precept is ‘I am reverential and mindful of all life. I am not violent. I do not kill.’ And that pretty well sums it up.”

– Venerable Kobutsu Shindo, Rinzai Zen Priest


“I do not think God approves the death penalty for any crime – rape and murder included. Capital punishment is against the best judgment of modern criminology and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.”

– Martin Luther King Jr.

“What you do to these men [on California’s Death Row], you do to God.”

– Mother Theresa

“I am passionately opposed to the death penalty for anyone . . . I think, myself, that it is an obscenity . . .”

– Desmond Tutu

“The death sentence is a barbaric act . . . [It is] a reflection of the animal instinct still in human beings.”

– Nelson Mandela

“We do not wish to have the suffering of the servants of God avenged by the infliction of precisely similar injuries in the way of retaliation . . . Not, of course, that we object to the removal from these wicked men of the liberty to perpetrate further crimes, but our desire is rather justice be satisfied without taking of their lives or the maiming of their bodies in any particular; and that, by such coercive measures as may be in accordance with the laws, they be drawn from their insane frenzy to the quietness of men in their sound judgment, or compelled to give up mischievous violence and betake themselves to some useful labor.”

– St. Augustine (354-430)

“I cannot in all conscience agree to anyone being sent to the gallows. God alone can take life because He alone gives it . . .”

“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

“Look, examine, reflect. You hold capital punishment up as an example. Why? Because of what it teaches. And just what is it that you wish to teach by means of this example? That thou shalt not kill. And how do you teach that “thou shalt not kill”? By killing.

I have examined the death penalty under each of its two aspects: as a direct action, and as an indirect one. What does it come down to? Nothing but something horrible and useless, nothing but a way of shedding blood that is called a crime when an individual commits it, but is (sadly) called “justice” when society brings it about. Make no mistake, you lawmakers and judges, in the eyes of God as in those of conscience, what is a crime when individuals do it is no less an offense when society commits the deed.”

– Victor Hugo


6 thoughts on “The Death Penalty: A Compendium of Quotes

  1. Albert Pierrepoint who was England’s last executioner said (from Wikipedia) It is said to be a deterrent. I cannot agree. There have been murders since the beginning of time, and we shall go on looking for deterrents until the end of time. If death were a deterrent, I might be expected to know. It is I who have faced them last, young men and girls, working men, grandmothers. I have been amazed to see the courage with which they take that walk into the unknown. It did not deter them then, and it had not deterred them when they committed what they were convicted for. All the men and women whom I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder.

    They made a damn good film about him titled after his name.

    Great post.

    1. Thanks, Steve. Pierrepoint was right. At that time in your country, when people could be hanged for just about anything and public executions were virtually spectator sports, the crime rate was staggering. As far as I know there has never been any concrete proof offered that capital punishment is a deterrent. I’ll have to keep an eye out for that film. Many years ago I read an excellent book about that period, “The Bow Street Runners” by John Creasey, once one of England’s top mystery writers and creator of such characters as Gideon of Scotland Yard, the Baron, and my favorite, The Toff.

  2. It is our own fear of death that makes us think killing any sentient being is an ultimate solution in any kind of dispute. Those who realize death is a part of life also realize the fallacy in using death as a threat Celebrate our impermanence and do not kill..

    1. You’re welcome, Bethany. You said it right. What a crazy society we live in. Healing is what we should be concerned about, not vengeance.

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