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Sacrifice—the death penalty option

EditorialSacrifice—the death penalty option

The recent events at the San Ignacio Community Hospital on June 1st drive home ever so clearly the predicament our small developing nation faces in balancing our quest for economic and human progress with our response to regional challenges related to crime and violence that, though not originating in Belize, have led to a climate of impunity and arrogance in members of the criminal element that has reached the point of rank disrespect and disregard for lawful authority in Belize. Numbers don’t lie, and while there may be statistics in many advanced nations which seem to downplay the effects of the death penalty on the number of murders, the numbers in Belize over the past two decades tell a different story, when compared to the state of our nation when capital punishment was still an option. Unless we are comfortable with the status quo and are prepared to continue on the current path of automatic life sentences for all convicted murderers, then some effort must be made to change the dynamics; and, while it is not here suggested to return to having the death penalty as being automatic upon a conviction for murder, there should be serious consideration of a possible return to the death penalty as an option, which would be a purposeful deterrent.

Our “old home” Belize is a small country; we are yet not even half a million residents in the Jewel, with likely a smaller number in the diaspora. We are still a warm and loving, friendly people. The prospect of the death penalty being carried out shakes all of us; it might be someone we know, and every life is precious. We all make mistakes. Some of us go down a wrong road, and do crazy things in our youth, and come to our senses later in life. Generally, Belizeans are a forgiving people. We believe that a person can have remorse for his/her wrongdoing, and we tend to, even regarding the worst offenders, say just “leave them to God”. Every person, whatever diabolical deed they may have committed, is someone’s child, and they are still loved and cherished, even if they cannot control or change their behavior. So, the death penalty as an automatic consequence of a guilty verdict for murder is a hard pill for most of us to swallow. There are so many situations that unfortunately could lead to murder – love and jealousy, provocation of different kinds, hired killing for money, revenge killing for a wrong in the past, impulsive anger and retaliation in a social setting, targeted execution due to gang affiliation, disputes over land and property, armed robbery, and the list goes on.

The reality is that very few murders in Belize end up in convictions. At one time the conviction rate was said to be less than ten percent, but that has likely increased since the introduction of trial by judge. It is agreed that the low conviction rate is an obvious incentive to would-be murderers who are emboldened by the feeling that they will likely not be caught, and that even if caught, their chances of walking free are fair enough. As much as eyewitnesses are important to achieve convictions in these cases, it is quite often that we hear of witnesses refusing to give evidence for fear of their own lives. And there have even been threats issued inside the walls of the courtroom by accused murderers. In a small country like Belize, where it is difficult for any citizen to hide and not be found by one seeking revenge, this has been another obstacle for prosecutors seeking to convict accused murderers.

Obviously, we are at a bad place in Belize in regards to violent crime and the apparent sense of impunity enjoyed by criminals in general and murderers in particular. There can be no peace without justice, and it may be time that we seriously consider, though not necessarily making it automatic upon conviction, a return to the death penalty as an option upon conviction for murder. The reality of such an existing option would get the attention of reckless young men who have been operating with a sense of impunity and comfort with only the risk of possibly “spending time” when they have willfully ended the time on earth of another person.

There are many situations and circumstances involved when a murder occurs. And it is acknowledged that our little Jewel suffers from way too many murders each year. The anguish and pain experienced by so many families, and the economic loss to the nation are simply unacceptable. Is it humane to allow this situation to continue, much as we consider each life to be precious? We really need to check ourselves, and ponder our options. We are being terrorized. But we do fear giving the power to the state to take lives, because they can then run wild and we could become a police state, with extra-judicial killings being the order of the day. And soon they would likely move from “taking out” the gangsters to doing the same with their political rivals. So, that is a definite no-no; we don’t want to go down that road.

But how can we get the attention of would-be murderers on the loose? What we now have is a bunch of them running free who were not caught, a bunch on remand waiting for their cases to be heard and possibly thrown out, and a bunch “spending time” awaiting possible parole a few years down the road. And the beat goes on.

There must be a situation where the nation will decide that a sacrifice must be made, a life must be forfeited, so that many lives down the road might be saved, and this madness of a hundred plus murders a year could end.

Here are two proposed scenarios that would justify the death penalty as a sacrifice and deterrent. One: in a case where an accused is found guilty of murder; and the accused is then also found guilty of issuing a threat against a witness or an official of the court, whether a juror or member of the prosecution branch or the police. Two: a special jury will be convened after any murder conviction has been reached, and this jury, by secret ballot, will decide by 3/4 majority vote if the guilty individual merits “spending time” or forfeiting his/her life for the life taken.

Thus, “spending time” for murder will no longer be automatic. And there may be only one instance when the crime is so egregious that the life jury “of our peers” determines that the blood of victims is crying out too loud, and a sacrifice must be made for the life of the community, and we can all begin to mourn the loss of the life that could have been by the one who must now leave us. The carrying out of the death penalty in this scenario would not be one of revenge, but of sacrifice for the life of the community and the children of the future.

The message to all mothers and fathers is simple; the time to save our lives and our children’s lives, is before they lose it. Realigning our justice system would now mean that, after decades of being “off the table”, to the comfort and delight of murderers on the loose, the death penalty by the state would now at least become an option, and something for those prone to violence to at least consider.

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