Mandatory death penalty to go

Government yesterday sought Parliamentary approval to abolish the mandatory death penalty in this country, but Minister of Energy and Water Resources, Wilfred Abrahams, who introduced the Bill, made it clear that the death penalty will remain on the statute books.

Abrahams, as he piloted the Offences Against the Person (Amendment) Bill during the morning session in the House of Assembly, explained that the amendment touches on other Acts including the Constitution of Barbados, the Penal System Reform Act and the Criminal Procedure Act, and therefore proposed that it be treated as a cognate debate.

His comments came as he indicated that removing the mandatory death penalty for those convicted of murder will bring Barbados in line with international treaties it has signed. Abrahams, who was filling in for Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Dale Marshall, explained that the new sentencing rules, once passed and enacted, will allow the judiciary to take all the facts of the case into consideration in determining if a person who has been convicted for murder should or should not be given a death sentence. He said this is necessary as there are circumstances where a person may have killed another, but it was not premeditated or intentional.

Noting that Barbados is a signatory to the International Convention on Human Rights and therefore recognises the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, he said that keeping the mandatory death penalty on the statute books was a violation of the convention, as it allowed for the deprivation of the right to life.

As such, he said the Human Rights Court felt that all murder should not be punishable by a mandatory death sentence and consideration should be given by judges to mitigating or aggravating circumstances as they determine an appropriate sentence. He made the point while noting that the Caribbean Court of Justice, this country’s final court of appeal, also found as recent as June this year, that the mandatory death sentence in Barbados was unconstitutional.

“Our law as it stands now does not distinguish between those two scenarios so that the person who did not necessarily intend to kill the victim faces the exact same charge of murder as does the person who intended to kill the victim and that is what the Inter-American Human Rights Court was trying to get across. We cannot stop you from having a death penalty if that is the rule or the law in your country, because some cultures, some people, some societies require the option of death as being the final, most severe penalty the law could impose. But what it says is that sentence of death must necessarily be reserved for the most heinous of offences and the most of serious crimes, such that no other sentence would suffice,” Abrahams a former President of the Barbados Bar Association stated.

The Minister’s comments came as he noted that the last executions in Barbados took place some 34 years ago, and so while persons convicted of murder have been sentenced to death, that sentence has not been carried out as successive Governments have accepted that “it is not fair that there is no option on the finding of murder, but to sentence a person to death”. He explained that in countries where death is the final sanction for murder they recognise degrees of the offence, with only the most serious degree being punishable by the sentence of death.

“The Inter-American Court and the CCJ and all the other human rights courts make the point that from the time the judge has no other options but to sentence somebody to death, you have stripped away one of the fundamental pillars of our criminal justice system which is judicial discretion. You have denied the judge the opportunity to take all of the circumstances into consideration and give the sentence that fits the crime and also the circumstances of the offence,” he stated.

Moreover, he argued that keeping the mandatory death penalty on the books, was also allowing the legislature to interfere with the working of the judiciary and was an obvious breach of the separation of powers. (JRT)

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