Will the U.S. Finally End the Death Penalty?

In the past, abolition efforts have faced a backlash—but Gavin Newsom’s moratorium may be different.
The American death penalty is extraordinarily fragile, with death sentences and executions on the decline. Public support for the death penalty has diminished. The practice is increasingly marginalized around the world. California, with its disproportionately large share of American death-row inmates, announces an end to the death penalty. The year? 1972. That’s when the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty inconsistent with the state’s constitutional prohibition of cruel or unusual punishments—only to have the death penalty restored a year later through popular initiative and legislation.
On Wednesday, again, California walked back its commitment to the death penalty. Though not full-fledged abolition, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on capital punishment lasting as long as his tenure in office, insisting that the California death penalty has been an “abject…

As Thailand resumes executions, an Australian's fate hangs in the balance

Thailand's King Rama X
The ruling that Theerasak Longji be executed was made at 4pm. At 5pm he was allowed to phone his wife, and during their hour on the line he protested his innocence. He didn’t speak to their eight-year-old son.

At 6pm he was given a lethal injection, and he spent his final moments praying in Arabic.

Only then did the prison authorities phone Theerasak's mother.  She was told the family could pick up her son's body.

Theerasak had spent six of his 26 years on death row and on June 18 became the first man executed in Thailand in nearly a decade.

He was barely a man when condemned in 2012 for the murder of a 17-year-old, who was stabbed 24 times, robbed and left for dead. The other attackers were never caught.

The question now for more than 500 convicts on death row, including Australian Antonio Bagnato, is whether this is an aberration or the new normal.

And given the final arbiter in many cases is the king, who has broad power to pardon or commute sentences but whose actions are often obscured by the world’s harshest lese majesty laws, there is no clear answer.

Theerasak's execution stunned Thai society. It was the first in nine years and only the third in 15. Debate has since raged, and lengthy articles in Thai newspapers have revisited the crime and the consequences.

Dr Amy Maguire, senior lecturer in international law and human rights at the University of Newcastle, said the execution was “undoubtedly a setback for everyone who supports abolition”.

“In saying that, though, the courts haven’t stopped handing down death sentences in that time,” Maguire said. “There are certainly hundreds of people on death row. I found statistics from 2015 that there were at least 649 people facing a death sentence.

“The effective moratorium may well have been more because of their efforts to switch execution methods [from the firing squad] to lethal injection than any intention to move away from capital punishment for good.”

Exiled academic Somsak Jeamteerasakul, who spent decades examining the monarchy and the lese majesty law before fleeing when coup-makers revoked his passport and issued a warrant for his arrest, wrote that in previous cases executions took place within 24 hours of the palace rejecting a plea for clemency.

In lengthy posts on social media, Somsak explained the moratorium of the past decade came about because the previous king had deliberately declined to rule on the cases before him – insiders called it going to the palace for a “sleepover”.

Until June 18, a death penalty was effectively a life sentence. Amnesty International, citing Justice Department figures, says 193 of 516 men and women on death row have submitted petitions to the palace, having run out of other legal avenues.

The junta led by former army chief and now Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha seized the chance to appear tough on crime and strong on security.

“The death penalty is legitimate,” Prayuth told reporters. “Many cases of severe crime have happened. Capital punishment exists to guarantee national peace and teach lessons. It is a necessity for us and people want it.”

The post-coup junta has held power longer than the natural, four-year term of elected governments, and after several delays appears to be inching towards a poll early next year. On a tour of Europe last week, Prayut told Bloomberg a final decision on the election would come in the coming months, but in the days since one of his deputies hinted it could take until May.

Maintaining the death penalty would suit the government's priorities of order and security at the expense of civil liberties, and the Justice Department has already said it had no plans to join the ranks of abolitionist nations. 

Bagnato’s case is unlikely to come to the fore in the short term. Having been sentenced early last year for his part in the murder of former Hells Angels member Wayne Schneider, he has an appeal pending before the courts.

“I understand the appeals process can take years, and perhaps up to a decade. Regardless of the success or failure of this particular appeal, it may not be his last one,” Maguire said.

“Certainly, the resumption of executions isn’t a positive sign for him, but I guess we could say that the very early signs are executions are more likely to be resumed for drug offenders.

“It’s a bit murky in terms of the status of his particular conviction.”

NSW Council for Civil Liberties president Stephen Blanks said Theerasak’s execution was a sign Australia “needs to redouble its efforts in advocating for the abolition of the death penalty” in the region.

“Australia should use its influence in forums in the region to encourage countries to abolish the death penalty,” he said.

“There are good reasons to abolish the death penalty and countries which maintain the death penalty need to bring their legal systems up to date with the best international practices.”

Bagnato, as a former bikie who murdered another former bikie, also hasn’t warranted much attention in the Thai media.

Pro-death penalty campaigners have instead revisited the 2014 murder of Kochakorn “Nong Kaem” Pitakjumnong, a 13-year-old girl whose body was found after she was raped and thrown from a moving train in the southern province of Prachuap Khiri Khan. Her killer, Wanchai Saengkhao, was 23 when he lost his appeal in 2015 and the death penalty was upheld. He has reportedly declined to explore any further legal options.

Campaigners have used the brutality of the Nong Kaem case to argue not only for a resumption of the death penalty, but extending it to sex crimes. Prominent among them is beauty queen Panadda Wongphudee, the 2000 Miss Thailand who has a significant social media following.

“We should still have the death penalty to be a lesson for society to be scared of committing crime, at least a little,” she wrote on Facebook.

Opinion polling shows the death penalty enjoys broad public support, with the most rigorous study showing only 8 per cent in favour of abolition.

Those who have voiced even mild opposition to the sentence were last week subjected to threats. Theerasak’s sister, in speaking out about the lack of warning the family was given, bore much of the vitriol, although a young anti-junta critic suffered rape threats for words she never even said – falling victim to a troll.

Theerasak was a gang member involved in drugs and suspected of other violent crimes, but the only evidence that convicted him was the word of the victim’s shaken girlfriend.

Speaking to Khaosod newspaper at the weekend, Theerasak’s widow lamented the death penalty’s finality. “Because he denied it the whole time, he didn’t get any reduction in his sentence. He denied it until the last minute.”

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald, Michael Ruffles, June 30, 2018

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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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Will the U.S. Finally End the Death Penalty?