The Death Penalty — A perspective from Trinidad and Tobago

By Professor John Spence 

The issue of the death penalty for convicted murderers is once more in the news. Unfortunately it has become a political issue creating difficulty for a serious discussion to be held on the justification for the imposition of this penalty and for discussing it on grounds of: enforcing the law, protecting society, justice, revenge, or on moral grounds. This topic has had world-wide discussion and the main issues can be stated and then discussed in terms of the pros and cons.

It is important to consider whether the consequences of murder are to be viewed as retribution, as a penalty, or as both. As far as I am aware none of our laws refers to retribution but only to penalties. Yet one often hears the death penalty being discussed in terms of retribution. As a penalty it is a legal issue; as retribution it is a moral issue.

Issues: (1) Morality (2) Constitutionality (3) Deterrence (4) Retribution or Revenge.  (5) Mistakes (6) Income level and/or Race (7) Quality of legal representation.

Morality

For me this is a difficult moral issue: we affirm that killing another human being is immoral yet justify the death penalty on the basis that the person convicted of murder has committed the immoral act of killing another human being.

Similar moral dilemmas are:

Euthanasia (mercy killing of a terminally ill person who is in great pain and discomfort): extreme suffering may be accepted and justified on the basis that it is immoral to take another human life.

Removal of life support systems: this may be justified in spite of the knowledge that in some cases a person who has been in a coma for many years has awakened.

Suicide:  this is considered to be immoral even when there may be great suffering.

To return to discussion of the death penalty, it has been reported that more than 1000 religious leaders in the United States have recently written an open letter stating that they: join with many Americans in questioning the need for the death penalty in our modern society and in challenging the effectiveness of this punishment which has consistently been shown to be ineffective unfair and inaccurate. They opined that: improving education, providing service to those with mental illnesses, putting law enforcement officers on our streets would be more effective and stated that: we should make sure that money is spent to improve life not to destroy it. As people of faith we take this opportunity to reaffirm our opposition to the death penalty and to express our belief in the sacredness of human life and in the human capacity for change.

In a Pastoral Letter the Antilles Episcopal Conference expressed their “firm desire that the leaders and people of Caribbean society move toward the total abolition of the Death Penalty. Therefore, we should place emphasis on the rehabilitation of the offender rather than on his/her elimination”. They also stated: “We must devise anti-crime plans that reject the death penalty as a crime-fighting tool. It will not help us create safe, secure communities”.

Constitutionality

On a recent morning television programmes the explanation was given that because of a clause in our constitution which saved laws existing prior to the enacting of our constitution, the law of 1925 which mandated the death penalty still applied. If I am interpreting this learned lawyer’s analysis correctly, were it not for this it could be successfully argued that the death penalty would be unconstitutional!

In the United States the death penalty was banned on constitutional grounds in 1972 but this was reversed in 1976. Currently sixteen States in the US do not allow the death penalty.

World-wide, according to Amnesty International in 2011 ninety six (96) countries have abolished the death penalty altogether, nine (9) had done so except under special circumstances and thirty four (34) had not used it for at least 10 years.  The other fifty eight (58) countries retained and used the death penalty. The countries which retain and use the death penalty tend to be poor or have authoritarian governments. Trinidad and Tobago cannot be categorised as either poor or to have an authoritarian government.

Deterrence

Perhaps the most persuasive argument for use of the death penalty is that its use deters others from committing murder.

In 2007 the American Civil Liberties Union stated: There is no creditable evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than long terms of imprisonment. States that have death penalty laws do not have lower crime rates or murder rates than states without such laws. And states that have abolished capital punishment show no significant changes in either crime or murder rates. The death penalty has no deterrent effect. Claims that each execution deters a certain number of murders have been thoroughly discredited by social science research. Conversely experts who support the death penalty present data to show that it is a deterrent.

To me the most forceful argument in dealing with murder is that the fear of detection is likely to be a deterrent whether the punishment is the death penalty or long terms of imprisonment. If this is correct then the need for the death penalty is diminished. When there are low rates of detection and the justice system is extraordinarily slow, as in this country, then penalties will not be deterrents no matter how severe they may be.

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 on 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 rather than 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”.

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