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What should Caribbean Countries do with Capital Punishment?



Amnesty International regards it as “the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights.”


Perhaps the best argument against the death penalty is the certainty that innocent people will be executed. In fact, one of the last people hanged in Britain was a mentally handicapped teenager who was later awarded a posthumous pardon.


By Larry Smith


In America, most of those executed could not afford a trial lawyer. And studies have shown the death penalty to be racially biased.


For example, in Florida, experts say a black man convicted of killing a white man is five times more likely to receive a death sentence than a white man convicted of killing another white man.


A study of hundreds of criminal cases in which the convicted person was exonerated suggests there are thousands of innocent people in American prisons today.


And the leading causes of wrongful convictions for murder were false confessions and perjury by co-defendants, informants, police officers or forensic scientists. We can only imagine how many similar unfortunates are locked away at Fox Hill after being processed by our courts and police.


Despite the clear risk that this could happen to any of us at any time, most Caribbeans share a biblical attachment to execution as a response to violent crime.


But judges have been chipping away at the practice for years.


In 2001, the Eastern Caribbean Appeal Court deemed the automatic death penalty “cruel and inhuman punishment.”


In 2002, the Privy Council in London – still the highest court of appeal for most CARICOM countries – upheld that judgment. In 2004, the Privy Council ruled against the mandatory death sentence in Jamaica.


Courts can still impose the death penalty in countries where mandatory sentencing has been struck down. But the Privy Council has also ruled that keeping a condemned man on death row for more than five years is cruel and unusual punishment. And this has halted executions in many Caribbean countries.


“The difficulty was that death row inmates would appeal to international human rights organisations that took years to render a decision,” explained Trinidad newspaper editor Therese Mills. “So a convicted killer could keep raising appeal after appeal, knowing that he could not be hanged after five years were up.”


Courts have also commuted death sentences in the expectation that prisoners would be on death row for an inhumanely long time waiting for their appeals to be heard. This issue is one of the chief reasons why CARICOM agreed to set up the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ)  to replace the Privy Council as the region’s final court of appeal.


The CCJ was inaugurated a year ago to serve as a tribunal for disputes arising from the Caribbean Single Market and Economy and also to be the region’s highest appellate body in civil and criminal matters. Only Barbados and Guyana have so far passed the necessary legislation, but it is expected that other countries will sign on over time.


The Privy Council ruling earlier this month abolishing the mandatory death penalty in the Bahamas was the result of an appeal brought on behalf of two murderers who have been on death row at Fox Hill for six and eight years respectively. The ruling means that the sentences of as many as 30 prisoners currently on death row will now have to be reviewed by the country’s Supreme Court.


"The implications for future murder trials will be the introduction of a completely new set of procedures restricting the imposition of the death penalty in the first instance,” said Maurice Glinton, one of the Bahamian attorneys who worked on the appeal.


“The Privy Council has gone some way towards ensuring that the law and practice in the Bahamas conform with international human rights standards in the application of the death penalty."


Responding to public opinion, Attorney General Allyson Gibson quickly said she would do “everything in my power to ensure that all sentences, including the death sentence in appropriate cases, are carried out expeditiously."


Meanwhile, the Privy Council warned that “should the Supreme Court, on remission, consider sentence of death to be merited in either case, questions will arise on the lawfulness of implementing such a sentence.”


This was clearly a reference to the fact that the two men directly affected by the ruling had been on death row longer than five years and an indication that their sentences would have to be commuted.


All this has led some to call for a rethinking of Caribbean countries relationship with the Privy Council.


In response to the recent ruling, Amnesty International urged the government in the Bahamas to abandon state killings – an unlikely prospect in the current political climate, where even churchmen are among the most vociferous proponents of hanging.


“The majority of the world’s countries no longer have the death penalty in law or practice and only a small minority actually carry out executions,” Amnesty said. “The government of the Bahamas should take this chance to join the global trend away from use of the death penalty.”


Well, it is true that the Privy Council ruling brings the Bahamas into line with evolving international standards. The United Nations says that a mandatory death penalty, which precludes the possibility of a lesser sentence regardless of the circumstances, is inconsistent with the prohibition of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.


Sixteen people have been executed in the Bahamas since Independence in 1973 - six in the past 10 years. The last execution here was carried out in January 2000, but mandatory death sentences continue to be handed down, so clearly there is a need to rationalise the system.


After the fatal stabbing of a guard during a prison escape in January 2006, there have been widespread public calls for the resumption of hangings. And Prime Minister Perry Christie has found it politic to mouth support for this.


Today, capital punishment is officially sanctioned by most American states, as well as by the US federal government. Critics say the homicide rate in those states with the death penalty is almost double the rate in states without the death penalty.


In 1966, Canada limited the death penalty to the killing of on-duty police officers and prison guards. Ten years later, the Canadian parliament abolished capital punishment for civilian crimes and in 1998 it was abolished for all offences. The last execution in Canada was in 1962.


The murder rate in Canada has steadily declined since abolition. Canadian research on the deterrent effect of punishment has reached the same conclusion as the overwhelming majority of US studies: the death penalty has no special value as a deterrent when compared to other punishments.


But according to Lord Denning, one of the most celebrated British judges of the 20th century, “It is a mistake to consider the objects of punishments as being a deterrent or reformative or preventive and nothing else...The truth is that some crimes are so outrageous that society insists on adequate punishment, because the wrongdoer deserves it, irrespective of whether it is a deterrent or not."


This is one of those very complex and emotionally charged issues that cut to heart of how we run our country.


Some think you can measure enlightenment by how we treat the most vulnerable sectors of society - women, children, minorities and prisoners.


But others believe there is no substitute for the best defence, which is capital punishment: They believe it not only forever bars the murderer from killing again, it also prevents parole boards and criminal rights activists from giving him the chance to repeat his crime.


You make the call.


Larry Smith writes a column called Tough Call every Wednesday for the Nassau Tribune. A former reporter and editor, he operates a communications agency and book distributor in Nassau (www.bahamasmedia.com). He also blogs at Bahamapundit.


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Rethinking the Death Penalty

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