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A Guy's View: To hang or not to hang

9/19/2010

By R.E. Guyson Mayers

To hang or not to hang, that is the question.

Since the fire at Tudor Street in the City that caused the death of six young women on September 3, 2010, persons have been making strong calls for the death penalty to be carried out as the law prescribes.
In the midst of the calls for justice, there is a strong view that these calls will wear themselves out, for, although the execution of convicted murderers is both what our law demands and the wish of the vast majority of Barbadians, this has counted for nothing in terms of having that punishment imposed.

Those who oppose the death penalty posit the view that this penalty is not an effective deterrent to murder. Personally, I believe that this is a position which the opponents of this ultimate punishment have adopted from elsewhere and have sought to apply it to our situation. Having lived all of my life in Barbados and having the knowledge of Barbadians that I do, I am not convinced that the death penalty, if properly carried out, would not be a deterrent to murder.

But whether I am right or wrong on the deterrent value of the death penalty is immaterial. Those who advance the lack of deterrence to support their opposition to the death penalty conveniently ignore two basic things:

(1) The death penalty is what it says it is Ė a penalty which attaches to a criminal act as provided for in the Laws of Barbados. It takes no cognisance of its ability or inability to deter others from committing a similar offence. Deterrence is not provided for anywhere in the law that prescribes death for murder. I believe that a check of any dictionary of the English language would show that the word penalty means punishment. In this context, it is the legal punishment for having committed a crime of having violated a law. It has nothing to do with deterrence. All the death penalty seeks to do is to ensure justice.

(2) Barbados is a country of laws; the Rule of Law is central to our legal system. The death penalty is a prescription of the Laws of Barbados, therefore, if any person murders and is convicted by a court of competent jurisdiction, in the absence of excepting factors, the death penalty should be executed against that person. Where the rule of law prevails, the application of legally provided penalties is not optional, except specifically provided for in law. We cannot administer justice according to the length of the Attorney Generalís foot.

Any public officer appropriately tasked who does not do all in his or her authority to ensure that the death penalty is carried out when the law so prescribes is negligent and is deserving of sanction. If we have decided not to execute persons who take the lives of others in circumstances of murder, then we should change the law.

The issue of forgiveness has now been injected into the debate. In my view, this is a totally irrelevant red herring. The law does not forgive and cannot be required to do so. At the point of the delivery of sentence, a presiding judge would ensure that all mitigating factors are taken into account. Once a jury of a personís peers returns a guilty verdict for murder, the law must take a certain course. That course has already been prescribed.

People can and should forgive, but not the law. The families of victims should try to find it in their hearts to forgive the persons who took the lives of their loved ones; that is a matter for them, not the national criminal code.

As may be clear by now, I strongly support the death penalty, although I believe we may consider introducing degrees of murder into our law. But having said that, I do not believe that this penalty should be carried out in the current environment.

Firstly, there seems to be no commitment to observing this aspect of our law, hence any use of this penalty would seem to be a reaction to public pressure and would likely be intermittent and based on somebodyís subjective point of view. We cannot have the situation where we hang persons convicted of murdering prominent individuals but not doing the same when ordinary persons are killed. As it stands, this is the impression that is in the minds of several Barbadians, whether true or not. If the death penalty is not going to be applied in a transparent, consistent manner, then it should not be used at all.

Secondly, its application seems to be sexist. Although the law does not recognise sex or gender where the requirement of the death penalty is concerned, there seems to be an unwritten rule that only men should be executed. If women cannot be put to death, then men cannot be put to death. A law can only be applied with bias if that law itself makes provision for its bias application, such as the Maintenance Act.

The conclusion of the whole matter is that we proclaim that we are a country of laws, but we seem to choose subjectively, and contrary to law, when and against whom we would wish to apply some laws, specifically the death penalty. We seem to have taken irrelevant matters into consideration in our subjective determination as to whether or not we will execute convicted murderers. As a consequence, we have failed to reward murderers with the fruit of their actions, to the detriment of our wider society.

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