Features — 11 March 2011 — by Janus
Until sixty years ago, the penalty for willful murder was death in almost all of the countries in the world. Then, some people of power and influence started to think it was no longer the appropriate punishment, because they were revolted by the method by which those condemned to die were executed. Also, there was a growing body of opinion in certain First World countries that the death penalty was not a deterrent in most instances of murder. They based this belief on the record of murder cases in their countries, most of which were crimes of passion. It was reasonable for them to conclude that it would make little or no difference in the incidence of murder if the penalty for this crime were life imprisonment, which was more humane. Their belief was confirmed by studies done, at their request and, the law was changed accordingly in the countries studied.
Should these findings, based on the experience of a few countries be applied universally, as if what is good for those countries is good for the whole world? In Belize, for example, we had over 500 murders in a population of 300,000, half of which are minors, in the last five years. What percentage of these do you think were crimes of passion? 5%? 10%? 15%? We don’t have the figures. I think less than 15%. Yet though it is still the law, no one is sentenced to death, on conviction for murder, anymore. Not since 1957 when there was only one murder. How many of those 500 victims do you think would still be alive, if the penalty were enforced? Isn’t it time for US THE PEOPLE to decide whether the penalty for murder should be death or life imprisonment?
These are the arguments in favor of life imprisonment instead of the death penalty: –
1. No matter how hard we try, even with all the safeguards that wise jurists have successfully established as judicial principles to ensure that an innocent man is never convicted of murder, the possibility exists that this can happen and the truth may never come to light or, it may be discovered too late. A man has a chance of being exonerated, if he is imprisoned, not if he is executed.
2. The Fifth Commandment is, “Thou shall not kill.” This commandment applies to the murderer and his executioner. There is no exception. The man who pulls the lever is as guilty as the man who pulls the trigger.
3. Execution is a primitive form of punishment. The civilizing influence of religion and science has made twenty-first century man more humane. There is a vestige of barbarism in the death penalty.
4. A man with a conscience is revolted by his act of murder. He is contrite and would gladly give the remaining years of his life to expiate his crime, if given the chance. He could be productive of not executed.
5. Life imprisonment is a very terrible punishment. Think of being confined in an iron cage for one day, then, multiply it by the rest of your days.
6. Murder is an act of extreme violence. Should the state practice violence as a form of punishment? The effect of murder and execution is the same. They both take human life.
THE DEATH PENALTY
1. The primary objective of a judicial system is to protect the society from harm by ensuring that those who break the law suffer the sanctions that the law imposes and, also, that the innocent go free. We have a system of advocacy where anyone accused of a crime is entitled to a defense and, those charged with the prosecution are mindful that to free the innocent is as much to be desired as convicting the guilty. Furthermore, the burden of proof of guilt lies with the prosecution. Also, there are many judicial principles which safeguard the rights of the accused, which have been institutionalized in the British court system practiced in our country. So that, guilty persons are frequently acquitted, whereas, the conviction of an innocent man is a rarity. There are even more safeguards against wrongful conviction in murder cases. No one in the record of trials in Belize has ever been executed, who was found to be innocent afterwards. The possibility that an innocent man can be convicted will always exist but, if it does happen in this country, it would have to be by Divine Providence and, if it does happen by Divine Providence, some good would come of it because, undeserved punishment is redemptive.
2. Murder is the most heinous crime and should have the most severe penalty. Which is the greater, life imprisonment or death? Life imprisonment is like slow death. You become less human with each passing day. Death is quick and final. Waiting for the appointed day is painful. Thinking of the manner of dying must be agonizing. Death by hanging and by appointment would engender more fear. It would be deterring to someone thinking about committing murder for reasons other than overpowering passion, such as jealousy.
It is true that a man like Othello, who killed his beloved Desdemona in a fit of jealous rage, would not have been deterred by any punishment. It is a great tragedy when you allow your emotions to subvert your judgment. When he came to his senses, a man like Othello would find living unsupportable. He would prefer death to imprisonment.
3. Which is the greater deterrent to murder, life imprisonment or murder? Based on our history since 1957, a reasonable man would have to conclude that the former has no deterring influence. Discounting the evidence of history, men have always preferred life
under any circumstances to death, even with the promise of a heavenly reward, the exception being religions zealots, like the suicide bombers.
4. The death penalty is not inhumane. Spiritual and emotional counsel are provided to those under sentence. They are given the rare opportunity to become reconciled to their Creator before the end, an opportunity most times denied to their victims.
5. Not all murderers are prone to violence but the ones who are, may kill a second or a third time. If life imprisonment is the appropriate punishment for murder, what is the punishment for a second murder by a man serving a sentence of life imprisonment for the first murder? It can happen. It has happened.
6. Over the years, opinion polls starting with a call-in talk show conducted by Senator Godwin Hulse over KREM Radio, twenty years ago, and, ending with a survey by Amandala’s Assistant Editor, Adele Ramos, two weeks ago, have shown that 90% of Belizeans favor the death penalty over life imprisonment.
In a democratic society, the will of the people should be the basis for the actions of their government. What the people’s will is, in regard to the punishment for murder, has always been the same. I believe in the collective wisdom of the common people. If they can be trusted to elect governments, why can’t they be trusted to decide what is good for our society?