FEATURED POST

In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

Image
To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

Bahamas: Time To Face Reality Over Death Penalty

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 2/3 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.

Source: Bahamas Tribune, January 20, 2016

- Report an error, an omission: deathpenaltynews@gmail.com - Follow us on Facebook and Twitter

Most Viewed (Last 7 Days)

Convicted killer from infamous “Texas 7” prison escape gets execution date

Malaysian court sentences Australian grandmother to death by hanging

Post Mortem – the execution of Edward Earl Johnson

Ohio: Lawyers seek review of death sentence for 23-year-old Clayton man

Texas man on death row for decapitating 3 kids loses appeal

Amnesty International Once Again Highlights Shocking Justice System in Iran

Maria Exposto: Can she avoid execution?

Nebraska seeks July 10 date for state's 1st execution since 1997

Ohio man with execution set for July 18 blames killing on ‘homosexual panic’

In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning