By LARRY SMITH
Last November, a regional conference in Guyana focused on abolishing the death penalty, which many Caribbean territories - including The Bahamas - want to keep on the books.
Sponsored by the European Union (EU), the conference went completely unnoticed here. The main conclusion was that, although capital punishment did not deter crime, public support for it was closely linked to fear.
As our murder rate rises to ever more “frightening” levels - which the authorities seem helpless to deal with - it is easy to see why ordinary citizens want to strike back. There is a strong sense that criminals are undermining our society.
Former cabinet minister Leslie Miller recently excoriated the Chief Justice for pointing out that - under current law - it would take a massacre before the death penalty could be carried out here. Miller is one of a growing number of Bahamians who have had close relatives or friends murdered in recent years. He dismissed the judge’s comment as “ridiculous and stupid” because it sent the wrong message to criminals.
“It’s sad that the courts are upholding the view that you have to have a massacre to consider you to be eligible for the death penalty. We must fight fire with fire. We have to wipe them out. It’s either them or us,” Miller said in typical bombastic style.
Another politician who has lost a close relative to crime is Democratic National Alliance chief Branville McCartney. And he has been equally insistent on the need for executions. “How many more must die,” he said recently, “before lawmakers do what is necessary to protect the public?”
Fundamentalist preachers are even more unyielding. Consider this comment from Bishop Walter Hanchell: “As we can see from scriptures, the penalty for murder is death ... state killings should and must be resumed in order to rid the community of wicked persons, who have lost their right to live in our society.”
But all of these comments amount to spitting in the wind. There is a global trend towards abolition of the death penalty.
Today, nearly two-thirds of all the countries in the world no longer execute people.
Many CARICOM nations retain capital punishment on the books, but judges - whether at the Privy Council in London or the Caribbean Court in Trinidad - have gradually made the penalty almost impossible to carry out.
The last executions in the region were carried out in St Kitts and Nevis (2008), the Bahamas (2000) and Trinidad and Tobago (1999). In St Kitts, the number of murders increased in the year following the 2008 execution. In Trinidad, after an appeals court determination limiting executions, the murder rate fell.
Multiple studies have shown that while capital punishment does not deter crime, it does run the risk of executing innocent people. And abolitionists argue that the death penalty is often used in a disproportional manner against the poor and minority groups.
As lawyer Dion Hanna has pointed out: “It’s very easy to convict someone under our legal system who may be innocent, and there is no redress, unless you have public campaigns to overturn a decision, and we don’t have that kind of culture in the Bahamas. So the death penalty really is a dangerous weapon in the hands of the legal system.”
According to a 2007 study by the United Nations and the World Bank, the causes of high crime rates in our region include the easy availability of guns, urban chaos, income inequality, and the prevalence of gangs, organised crime and drug trafficking.
As the South African court which abolished the death penalty in 1995 said: “We would be deluding ourselves if we were to believe that the execution of ... a comparatively few people each year ... will provide the solution to the unacceptably high rate of crime ... The greatest deterrent to crime is the likelihood that offenders will be apprehended, convicted and punished. It is that which is presently lacking in our criminal justice system.”
Delegates at the Guyana conference called on Caribbean countries to formalise the unofficial moratorium on the death penalty that currently exists and respect international human rights laws. They argued that public opinion in favour of executions was not a major obstacle to achieving this.
“Public support for the death penalty does not necessarily mean that (it) is right,” an EU statement said, pointing to historical precedents where gross human rights violations had the support of a majority of the people, but were condemned vigorously later on. In dealing with crime, it was seen as far more important to strengthen the judicial system, while advancing public education on the issue of punishment.
One of the top speakers at the Guyana conference was Navnit Dholakia, who was born in Africa and educated in India before emigrating to Britain in the 1950s. He is a member of the UK All Party Parliamentary Committee on Abolition of the Death Penalty. “Do we follow public opinion or do we lead?” Dholakia said in Guyana. “What do we mean when we talk about public opinion? Do politicians go around asking for a referendum on every issue … the answer is no.” Change, he said, can only happen if governments take the lead.
The last time this issue was officially addressed in the Bahamas was in 2011, when the Ingraham administration amended the law to define just what crimes would be eligible for the death penalty. They include killing a uniformed officer or judge, and killing during a rape, robbery, kidnapping or act of terrorism.
But the consensus among judges and legislators is that hanging is over here.
We have a current de facto abolition of the death penalty, and it would be much better if politicos and religious leaders restrained themselves from pandering to public fears and talking nonsense. Common sense should tell us that a handful of executions following years of delay (from a handful of convictions) will have no meaningful effect, particularly on those we would most like to be deterred - like gangsters.
Fixing the justice system is much more important than imposing the death penalty.
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