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Death penalty: A moral issue

By William Lucie-Smith

Every now and again our Parliament is faced with a moral issue, with no obvious political component, on which they must make a decision in the national interest.

Such issues include stem cell research, abortion and the death penalty. We would naturally hope for informed debate on the issue and a consensus decision made by society's leaders. We have recently seen how our own politicians have dealt with such an issue on which they apparently all agree, but failed to reach a consensus.

George W Bush in his autobiography Decision Points describes the process he used when faced with such an issue (stem cell research) in the first months of his presidency. He writes, "I considered this a far-reaching decision. I laid out a process for making it. I would clarify my guiding principles, listen to experts on all sides of the debate, reach a tentative conclusion, and run it past knowledgeable people. After finalising a decision, I would explain it to the American people. Finally, I would set up a process to ensure that my policy was implemented.''

This process took several months and included a visit to the Pope before he addressed the nation in August 2001. I wonder how this process compares to your perception of the performance of our parliamentarians in the death penalty debate, even if, like me, you do not hold George W Bush in the highest esteem.

The death penalty is a highly emotive issue and many will agree that in developed countries there is no need for it. Whatever the pros and cons of this punishment it appears that market research suggests 90 per cent of the public support it in some form or other and both political parties are in favour of utilising it.

Despite more than 500 murders a year (more than in New York which has seven times our population), and despite the political will and public support, there have been no executions in Trinidad and Tobago since 1999. The reasons for this are well documented and have been stipulated in court rulings about the required time for appeals and also the arbitrary nature of the mandatory death penalty.

The reality is that we can have few complaints about the court rulings. Justice delayed is justice denied according to an old axiom, and five years seems an appropriate period to complete a judicial process to carry out the death penalty. The mandatory death sentence is a legacy of colonial times and needs reform. Setting aside the obvious fact that nobody has been executed for more than ten years, the mandatory death sentence suggests that if every murder resulted in an arrest, conviction and execution we would have over 500 executions a year. It is doubtful that the majority of Trinidad and Tobago would be in favour of that, probably agreeing with the position that the jury, the judge and the mercy committee should all have the opportunity to commute the sentence.

There are many sensible reasons to rid ourselves of the mandatory death sentence. It is quite probable that not all murderers are equally evil and there could be good reason to think that a lesser sentence is appropriate. It is possible the death penalty has been enforced on some who perhaps deserved clemency but were refused for political reasons. This was certainly the case with Derek Bentley hanged in the UK in the 1950s despite his reduced mental capacity (he was granted a posthumous pardon).

There is also strong anecdotal evidence that some jurors are reluctant to convict because of the mandatory death sentence. And of course there is the ridiculous cost of pursuing the death penalty through the Privy Council and various other human rights bodies.

So even though I am not a lawyer, and therefore cannot discuss all the legal impediments to carrying out the death penalty, it is more than obvious that radical reform is required to our statutes on the death penalty. I do not have a suggestion as to what should be done. However, it would seem if we were serious about reform, a process should be followed not unlike that described by George W Bush in which all the experts are consulted (including the courts if that is possible) to ensure any draft legislation is appropriate and has majority bipartisan support. The recent attempt to change the law was poorly understood by most, had little expert review and resulted in a legislative fiasco.

Another non-political issue which our Parliament continues to fudge is the confirming of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as our final appellate court. It is well known that the Privy Council wishes to be rid of Caribbean appeals and that is why the CCJ was created. Outgoing president of the CCJ (former chief justice Michael de la Bastide) said last week, "I leave this court with the conviction that we have a quality court. If you have a good thing available for which you have paid, why in heaven's name you don't use it.''

It is paradoxical indeed that our parliamentarians believe they should be independent of the UK parliament as a matter of sovereignty, and yet wish to make our courts subservient to a foreign court that is both physically and culturally remote. Once again our parliamentarians have failed to find consensus.

• William Lucie-Smith is a chartered accountant specialising

in corporate finance

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