Wed | Feb 26, 2020

Kristen Gyles | Capital punishment, capital NO!

Published:Sunday | January 5, 2020 | 12:24 AM
Kristen Gyles
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With the murder rate having gone up last year, it is evident that the country’s desperate crime-fighting efforts have not borne much fruit. Over time, with the crime situation worsening, all and sundry have posited some idea or another as the missing link in the crime-fighting plan Jamaica should adopt in order to defeat the crime monster.

From chemically castrating rapists to establishing a national firing squad, Jamaican laymen and policymakers alike have become experts at engineering the most painful and gut-wrenching means of execution for criminals.

Time and time again, whenever the age-old capital punishment conversation is resurrected, everyone puts in his piece about how to make the execution as painful and gruesome as possible.

This is precisely where the problem lies.

All in all, it seems that we all love death and horror. The only difference between the criminals and the general citizenry, it seems, is that whereas the criminals mindlessly kill their baby mothers, ex-girlfriends, and friends who don’t return their ‘shoes’, we seek to kill the criminals – and just as gruesomely.

Same killings, different victims.

THE RIGHT TO LIFE

At the heart of the proposition to revive the death penalty in Jamaica (or anywhere for that matter) is the misguided and presumptuous notion that somehow, we have the right to make the decision as to whether an individual should live. To make the determination that someone (anyone) is not worthy to live is to fly so far beyond the realm of ethics altogether such as to fly right up in God’s face.

Let’s not get it confused. A sizable portion of murders is revenge killings. In other words, someone felt that someone else had to pay (with their life) for some wrongdoing – quite similar to how we feel murderers must pay (with their lives) for their wrongdoing.

Maybe the focus isn’t quite right. The best way to tackle crime can’t just be to focus on making someone pay. This is exactly how many criminals themselves reason.

The number-one priority in dealing with any criminal should be to prevent them from committing further crimes. Life sentences are an excellent way to achieve this goal. Life sentences also provide something the death penalty cannot: rehabilitation. For the most part, we tend to focus on the retributive power of the justice system to the neglect of its ability to provide rehabilitative services.

Tell the average Jamaican that a criminal convicted of murder should be put through a psychosocial rehabilitation programme and his blood will start to boil. Why? When we ourselves get so angry at the idea of a criminal reforming his life and becoming something of value to the country in which he lives, it’s quite clear where our priorities lie: more in feeding our vengeful desires than in actually building the social structure and frame of the country.

Furthermore, in a country where allegations of corruption abound, why would anyone think it is a good idea to put more power in the hands of any jury?

A fairly recent and well-known murder trial showed us just how dependent our justice system is on people’s integrity, which could fail us. A juror in the trial was charged with attempting to bribe fellow jurors, including the foreman, to acquit the defendant, who was being tried for murder.

The allegation came as hardly anything shocking, especially in a country where there is always some corruption scandal to discuss and where the police force has been branded with the new tagline ‘Write or Leff?’

WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS

The National Academy of Sciences has estimated that roughly one in 25 persons placed on death row in the United States is innocent. Corruption isn’t the only issue we have to contend with.

The truth is, the court tries its best to do its best, but its best just isn’t always good enough. We are people. Flawed, imperfect, and fallible. We make mistakes. And we don’t suddenly stop making mistakes the moment we become jurors in murder trials. This is why up to September 2019, the US-based Innocence Project had documented 365 DNA exoneration cases, 20 of the accused were on death row. With such a high exoneration rate, there’s no telling exactly how many persons have been innocently put to death for crimes they never did commit.

We just don’t know if integrity and good sense will prevail when and if somebody decides to flash around a few hundred thousand dollars in exchange for a guilty verdict.

People have heartlessly dismissed the number of wrongful convictions over the years as being negligible and a necessary evil for the common good. I’ve never seen or heard of a case wherein a family member or friend of an innocently executed person held this opinion, though.

Undoubtedly, many innocent people have lost their lives to the death penalty – lives that others should have never reserved the right to take from them. After the fact, when new evidence is brought forward, the accused already having been put to death, the court simply goes ‘oops’ and avoids ‘wasting time’ on a case for which the defendant is dead.

Killing people who kill people to show people that killing people is wrong is a very circular approach to reducing murders. There are a number of sound and sensible crime-fighting plans the country can implement, but capital punishment is not one!

- Kristen Gyles is an educator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.