31 August 2015

Let’s get serious about the death penalty

Galle Face Green:  An ideal place for the first execution, don't you think?
One of these days, the State of Sri Lanka will execute a person currently on death row, as per the current thinking regarding capital punishment in powerful circles. It will be the first legal execution in over 30 years.  I am not sure if the instrument of death will be an electric chair, a rope or a lethal injection. I am not sure if it will happen in Bogambara or Welikada.  But if the state decides to go ahead and execute, then I have my preferences.  

This is how I want it to happen. Location: Galle Face Green.  Reason:  This place would accommodate the most number of spectators.  The Parliament grounds would be an alternative venue since it can hold a lot of people and also because it makes more political and ethical sense given its proximity to the building that houses the most number of people’s representatives.  I prefer old style executions, i.e. with the victim tied and his/her head on the chopping block and an executioner bringing down a heavy axe with a well-sharpened blade onto his/her neck.  I also want the entire spectacle telecast live in all channels with the radio networks chipping in with moment-to-moment commentaries. I want the pictures of the moment before, the moment and the moment-after splashed across the Sunday papers (Sinhala, Tamil and English).  I want lengthy feature articles describing the crime that warranted execution, the victims of the crime and also the murderer’s story, his/her last words, whether or not he/she regretted the crime, why he/she committed it in the first place, with comments of the prosecuting and defending attorneys, the judge, the jurors (if this is legal).  

Do I have a fascination for the gruesome? Not at all.  I want it this way because people are justifying the death penalty as an effective deterrent.  The deterrent argument assumes that every person is a potential murderer and therefore executions should be of the in-your-face kind.  We can’t be squeamish about it.  I am willing to predict that if this is done there will be such a public outcry against the horrendous act of legal murder that the death penalty would be abolished forthwith.  

Deterrence is not the only argument for instituting the death penalty. Some use the eye-for-an-eye argument.  As Albert Camus argues eloquently in his influential essay on the subject, ‘Reflections on the Guillotine’, an execution never corresponds to the murder to which it is purported to be punishment.  Camus argues that there is no crime, however gruesome, that matches legal execution for the horrors of premeditation.  No victim suffers what the murderer is made to suffer consequent to the sentence being issued.  No murderer informs his/her victim of the date and time of death, the instrument of death and holds the victim in confinement with the proverbial sword of death hanging over his/her head as does a legal system that sanctions the death penalty.   

Does this mean that murderers should be allowed to go scot-free? No, this is why there are prisons, there are life-sentences.  Those who have been determined to be threats to society much be held in facilities which serve to insulate society from them.  Neither the death penalty nor life imprisonment are guarantees a lowering of the crime rate.  That would mean that all other social, economical and other factors have been immobile and that instituting the death penalty would supersede all these in determining the behaviour of human beings.  Utter nonsense, I believe. Lowering the crime rate requires greater vigilance on the part of the citizenry, a stronger sense of civic duty, better and more effective policing and a more efficient legal system.  
While there is premeditation in many murders, an equal number fall under the category, ‘Crimes of passion’.  These are perpetrated with hardly any reflection on the possible consequences. Someone who kills a person in a fit of jealousy would hardly be expected to worry about being executed at a later date. In most instances the murderer has absolved him/herself of guilt already.  The death penalty will not deter such a person.  

The most compelling argument against the death penalty, in my book, is its irreversibility.  You cannot compensate an executed man if it is later found that he was not guilty.  Let me recall the case of P.D. Jamis. He was released from the Welikada Prison after spending 50 years in remand without conviction.  Justice took a while, but it did arrive.  Had he been condemned to die, however, and if the injustice of the determination was proved 50 seconds after the fact, no power on earth could have righted the wrong.  It has been pointed out by many legal luminaries that it is impossible to eliminate the chance of judicial error.  The possibility that one innocent man or woman may be legally executed ought to be enough reason to abolish the barbaric practice.  But perhaps, barbarians are who we are, as a society, if we do not raise our voices against the death penalty and if this is the case, then Galle Face is where the action ought to be come that terrible day (if and) when the state decides to execute someone on death row.

Murder cannot be sanctioned.  We must empathize with the loved ones of the victim, understand their horror, anger and despair.  We must not let emotion rule reason, however, in our response to murder.  If that were the case, then again, I only have Galle Face, a dangediya (chopping block) and a gahalaya (executioner) to offer a society intent on elevating revenge to these dizzying heights of justice.  

*This article was first published in the Sunday Island in August 2010.  Posting it because revenge is in the air and there are people calling out for blood.