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…

Sri Lanka: Hang Your Head In Shame, Instead Of Hanging Convicts!

Sri Lanka flag

The cabinet spokesman told the media on July 25, 2018, as reported on Hiru News, that the cabinet has unanimously approved the (presidential) decision to implement the death penalty even if the EU withdraws the GSP+ facility in response as warned. Though I personally do not attach much credibility to the particular person's statement, I thought as a patriotic Sri Lankan that it would be in the national interest to sound a warning before it is too late. (Caveat: It is hoped that no one will get upset by this personal opinion of a non-politician which is being described here for what it is worth.)

Beware! The forfeiture of the GSP+ concessions is not the real issue. The real issue is the impact of bringing back the death penalty on the amelioration of the law and order situation in the country. Those who are determined to impose a 'final solution' on Sri Lanka have cynically manipulated for a noose to be slung around her neck in the form of this controversial proposal for implementing the death penalty at this particular juncture after a suspension of over forty years. They are trying to give a dog a bad name and hang it. To elaborate: these very same people who have now begun loudly criticizing the proposed re-implementation of the capital punishment and threaten Sri Lanka with a suspension or total withdrawal of the GSP (The previous government did very well without it, though, and without the death penalty either) were suspected to be behind the 2015 regime change, which was a geopolitics centred exercise; the change, by now, has proved disastrous for the country. Their proteges are in the process of fulfilling their promises against the popular will, but the economic help (investments, financial grants, etc. that they were made to expect) appears to be not forthcoming, understandably because their own economies are in bad shape. Now it is convenient for them to find an excuse for washing their hands of their obligations to their potentially useful third world 'protectorate'.

They know, as the saner citizens among us do, that hanging the convicts currently in the death row is no solution for the problem of drugs trafficking. It would be unfair for us to expect outsiders such as Americans, Europeans and Indians, though no doubt they are our friends as they have already demonstrated, to be so deeply worried about this problem as we are, who are the people directly affected by it. They are not worried about whether convicted drug traffickers hang or not, either. The people who are the most worried about the ever growing drug addiction menace among the young are their parents. But these friends in disguise are not worried about that. Neither should we expect them to be. However, the anarchic situation prevailing in all spheres of governance including particularly law and order (whose handiwork that is, let us forget for the moment) seems to have suddenly thrown up this apparent demand for the immediate resumption of executions as a deterrent against serious crime (particularly, narcotics traffic, murder and rape). Desperate but innocent ordinary citizens unaware of the far-reaching implications of the president acting like a reckless autocrat bent on a vindictive crusade on this occasion dealing death to the convicted drug traffickers might hail him as a hero. But he himself is unlikely to resort to such a foolhardy course of action even though he might find it an easy way to try to restore at least some of his lost credibility. His 2 immediate predecessors also came under pressure for re-implementing the death penalty, but they somehow managed to wiggle out of it. It must be admitted, whether we like it or not, that under the previous government, the better maintenance of law and order minimized underworld criminal activity including drugs trafficking, without the help of the judicial executioner.

Buddhist monks have already expressed their disapproval. However, many ordinary citizens, in their desperation, appear to be in favour of the convicts being hanged. An old woman of 71 has offered to do the job of executioner for free! Some well meaning civil leaders including a few religious dignitaries seem to endorse the idea as a last resort for controlling serious crime. An outspoken politician of the nationalist camp stated recently that the Buddhist teaching was that the monks and the laity should obey the law of the country, which, of course, is true. However, this politician apparently endorses the bringing back of the capital punishment, considering it as an essential part of the country's law enforcement machinery. My opinion, though, is that even judicial killing is contrary to the Buddhist teaching. The Buddhist stand (i.e., no death penalty) is compatible with the modern secular view of morality that is gaining ground across the world.

Out of the 195 countries in the world, according to Amnesty International, 101 countries have abolished the institution of capital punishment; in 39 countries it is in abeyance; so, judicial killing as punishment is not practiced in 140 countries. This means that nearly 72% of the countries do not have the death penalty. I think a Sri Lanka without the death penalty should be in good company.

I, for one, am against the re-implementation of the death penalty, which has been suspended since 1976. The capital punishment is an uncivilized, inhuman way of 'exacting' justice. It is not restorative justice; it is retaliatory justice (the savage medieval "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" system of justice). When the resumption of executions was proposed within a few months of the inauguration of the present regime, as it is being done now even more menacingly, I participated in the general exchange of views regarding the subject at the time by contributing an article to this newspaper. It was under the title Abolition of capital punishment: an acceptable absurdity" (The Island/June 10, 2015). The concluding paragraph of that particular write-up was as follows:

"There are those who think that death by hanging or other method is 'just deserts' for someone who has been found guilty of murder, rape, or drug dealing. They would argue that it is absurd to worry about the human rights of criminals who have deprived innocents of their human rights. But I feel that our concern for a person convicted of a crime does not actually exceed that for their victim. It is that we tend to extend the same degree of fellow feeling towards both in spite of the stark differences in their circumstances. We share the general unsatisfactory nature of human existence with both. The resultant feeling of compassion for another human being is the essence of humanity. Therefore the abolition of the death penalty should be seen as an acceptable absurdity."

So, my position is that not only should the suspension continue, but eventually the death penalty must be totally abolished. Of course, judicial punishment is indispensable in administering the law in any society. But it needs to be applied for the reform of the offender, and in a broader context for the deterrence of crime. Proper administration of the law is the inescapable duty of any government. No excuses can be allowed for a government's remissness in executing this responsibility.

To me it appears that the president has been bamboozled (i.e., fraudulently persuaded or bewildered) by someone to take this questionable decision, ignoring the obvious. The immediate circumstance that triggered his seemingly ironclad resolve to hang the condemned for drug trafficking (18 of them as reported) who have been languishing in jail for years now is the alleged discovery that some of them have directed murders and other crimes from their prison cells. There is a problem here. Can executing all of them including those who are suspected of having masterminded crimes from within the prison walls be a good solution? Of course not.

A vital question is 'Who is to blame for making it possible for the convicts to do this sort of crime?' Has the minister in charge of prisons resigned over this unspeakable lapse or at least done something about the prison authorities whose failure to prevent such heinous breaches of inmate supervision? Shouldn't that real problem be solved first and remedial action taken to prevent any repetition of similar criminal negligence of duty on the part of prison officials? Of course, this is not the 1st time such a thing happened. It must have happened in the past too. There is also a perception that there is a longstanding link between criminals and politicoes, a deplorable situation for which politicians present and past share direct responsibility. Though that is true, it should not be cited as an excuse for the incumbent administration to perpetuate the pernicious tradition and exploit it for their own ends. Bad politics is largely responsible for the recrudescence of drug related and other types of criminal violence in our society.

The question that naturally arises where the death penalty is abolished or not practiced is 'What is the alternative?' Strict enforcement of the law is the answer. If the existing laws are inadequate, let's make new laws. Judicial killing is revenge killing by the society or retaliatory justice. Is there any reformative value in it? None, because the person to be reformed is dead. It could be of some limited deterrence value, though, because it could discourage potential murderers, rapists, etc. But hardened criminals are usually suicidal. Fear of losing the right to live - of risking the death penalty - is nothing for them. In place of the death penalty, appropriately extended life imprisonment can be made so grueling for unrepentant murderers, unpardonable rapists and drug traffickers as to make them rue the day they were born. That will prove a more severe punishment for them than instant death through hanging or other form of execution. But even that kind of extreme punishment in lieu of capital punishment need not be inhuman. Human beings change. Convicted criminals are also human. After serving a prescribed maximum period of time, they should be able to qualify for being considered for parole (temporary or permanent) when they have reformed and when their release from prison is certified to be 100% safe to the society by qualified official psychiatrists. The primary responsibility for this must be shouldered by politicians, but they must be careful not to politicize crime and prison management.

Source: lankaweb.com, Rohana Wasala, July 27, 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?