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Case against death penalty

By John Spence

Part II

In Part I of this series I suggested that there are certain issues on the death penalty that need to be discussed. These are: (1) Morality (2) Constitutionality (3) Deterrence (4) Retribution or Revenge (5) Mistakes (6) Income level and/or Race (7) Quality of legal representation. In that article I discussed Morality, Constitutionality and Deterrence. In this article I shall discuss Retribution or Revenge and Mistakes.

(4) Retribution or Revenge

As I listen to the comments on the death penalty the most frequently voiced opinions, whether the speakers realise it or not, are calls for retribution. Sometimes the calls are so extreme (even from Government Ministers) that I am reminded of the American "Wild West". In the movies portraying those times the constant theme for any supposed murderous transgression was "hang them high"— even for horse thieves since that was the law at that time.

Any time a relative was killed it was not considered necessary to wait for the law but revenge killing was the norm as is the case in Trinidad and Tobago today among criminal gangs. In this country there are constant calls for "justice". If by this is meant apprehension of the criminals, a fair trial, conviction and sentencing there can be no disagreement with that view. But this is society's justice. It is not personal to the victim.

Particularly in view of the brutal nature of some of the murders an emotional reaction on the part of the victims is understandable. Which one of us could truthfully say that we would not react emotionally if someone close to us were to be murdered? Often the statement is made that those who oppose the death penalty are not thinking of the victims. If one were discussing compensation for victims (which should be discussed) then there would be greater mention of such victims, but if one is discussing the death penalty for murderers the focus will be on the latter.

In 2000 the Catholic Bishops of America as part of a statement on restorative justice stated: "A fundamental moral issue of the criminal justice system (in the United States) is how it responds to those harmed by crime. Too often, the criminal justice system neglects the hurt and needs of victims or seeks to exploit their anger and pain to support punitive policies."

I do not adhere to the concept of retribution or revenge. I believe that such feelings may do harm to the persons who harbour them. I give hereafter the views of a Jesuit priest, Raymond A Schroth, as stated in the Pro-Con.org website on death penalty: "Retribution is just another name for revenge, and the desire for revenge is one of the lowest human emotions—perhaps sometimes understandable, but not really a rational response to a critical situation.

"To kill a person who has killed someone close to you is simply to continue the cycle of violence which ultimately destroys the avenger as well as the offender. That this execution somehow gives 'closure' to a tragedy is a myth. Expressing ones violence reinforces the desire to express it. Just as expressing anger simply makes us more angry."

I was horrified recently to hear a leading politician say that he is in favour of flogging. I am not one who believes on excessive dwelling on the past but that anyone who knows the history of slavery in this country should advocate that we should return to one of the worst aspects of that time leads me to the dismal conclusion that there is little hope for a meaningful solution to the violence of our present circumstances. That one of our leaders should be so insensitive to the social aspects of our situation is most depressing.

(5) Mistakes

One of the greatest problems with the death penalty is the possibility (or even the certainty) that mistakes will be made and innocent persons will be put to death. Obviously such mistakes cannot be corrected. Many errors have been discovered by modern methods of DNA testing.

In the year 2000 Russ Feigold, US Senator, is quoted in Pro-Con.org as stating: "Since the reinstatement of the modern death penalty 87 people have been freed from death row because they were later proven to be innocent. That is a demonstrated error rate of one innocent person for every seven persons executed."

It may, however, be argued that now that we have DNA as an investigative tool errors are less likely to occur. But if these errors have occurred in the United States how much more are errors likely to occur in Trinidad and Tobago where low detection rates speak to the inefficiency of the investigative system?

In the United States Stanley Tookie Williams maintained to the time of his execution that he was innocent of the crimes for which he was eventually executed and there are still persons working to prove his innocence. However, there seems to be little doubt that the Crips gang which he co-founded committed many serious crimes. But Williams's importance lies in the fact that in prison he was converted into a person whose subsequent writings evidently had a great influence in leading young people away from a life of crime. He was nominated on six occasions for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Whether innocent or guilty of the crimes for which he was executed, the story of his early childhood must be similar to that of many gang members in this country. I venture to suggest that there are not many of us, however sanctimonious we may be, who can say with certainty that we would not have fallen into his gang life if we had been placed in similar circumstances. His life story was made into a TV movie in 2004 starring Jamie Fox entitled: Redemption—the Stan Tookie Williams Story.

—To be continued

• John Spence is Professor Emeritus, UWI. He also served

as an independent senator

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