Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Tired death penalty debate

published: Tuesday June 12, 2007
Vernon Daley

'In the midst of them, the hangman, ever busy and ever worse than useless, was in constant requisition, today taking the life of an atrocious murderer, and tomorrow of a wretched pilferer who had robbed a farmer's boy of sixpence'.
- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

When the death penalty issue surfaces with intensity, you know the election is at hand. It's one of those hooks the parties seem to favour as they reach out to voters in this desperately crime-ridden country.
Last week Opposition Leader Bruce Golding restated the Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP) position that it would resume hanging if it wins power in the upcoming election. The governing People's National Party's (PNP) pro-death penalty position is also well known, even though it hasn't managed to hang anyone in the past 18 years.

Many voters get a sense of hope when the parties throw the line about carrying out the death penalty to help curb murders, but some of us are tired of this 'fool-fool' argument that hanging will do the trick. We don't have to think too hard about it to see that the peculiarities of the Jamaican crime environment would render the death penalty useless as a deterrent.

Many of our hardened murderers are very young men, often teenagers, imbued with an insane fearlessness that drives them to engage the police and other criminals in open warfare in the streets. They would have seen few of their criminal combatants make it past 30 years old and they live with the reality that their own days are numbered. Yet, death penalty advocates are asking us to believe that these young killers are going to be deterred from a life of crime if we break a few necks occasionally? This is trite nonsense, if I've ever heard it!

Young murderer

We also have more than enough anecdotal evidence that members of the security forces carry out a fair bit of executions. Young men in the killing fields of the Corporate Area and elsewhere know that if they are caught with a gun, their chances of having their day in court are very slim, indeed. The immediacy of these executions has not deterred them from entering a life of crime, but still, we hope the thought of going to the gallows after lengthy trials and appeals would be enough to set them on the path of righteousness.

Perhaps the most powerful argument made against the death penalty as a deterrent is the fact that the police are not catching the murderers. About half the murders here are never solved which suggests that you have a good chance of killing someone and getting away with it. If you are not caught, how are you to be hanged?

I don't have a moral problem with the death penalty if it's pushed as retributive justice. In other words, if we are going to hang people, let's do it because we think the punishment fits the crime. But, for heaven's sake, can we please dump this tired argument that it would be a deterrent to murderers?

Terror plot in the US

Four Caribbean nationals have been implicated in an alleged terror plot to blow up fuel lines and tanks at JFK International Airport. I'm concerned that news reports are treating these men as though they are guilty even before they stand trial.
Security personnel in the United States sold the whole thing as a massive terror plot which had potentially devastating consequences, and the regional and international news media have picked up the line uncritically.

As the dust settles, questions are now being asked, even in the U.S. media, whether this whole thing wasn't hyped to serve some narrow political purpose in Washington. Was this really a terror plot or was it loose talk among acquaintances that went a bit too far? Let's not rush to judgement. We need to wait and hear what comes out in court.

Vernon Daley is a journalist. Send comments to vernon.daley@gmail.com

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