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Michael Abrahams | The death penalty is not the answer

Published:Monday | May 16, 2016 | 12:23 AMMichael Abrahams

National Security Minister Robert Montague recently said that his ministry is taking steps “to determine if there are any legal impediments to the resumption of hanging in Jamaica”. He further stated that persons who intend to break the law must know that “punishment will be sure, swift and just”.
The minister’s concern is understandable. When our country gained Independence in 1962, our murder rate was 3.9 per 100,000, one of the lowest in the world. In 2005, we had the dubious distinction of being the most murderous country in the world, claiming a rate of 58 per 100,000 people. Our rate now hovers around 40 per 100,000.
Hanging is still legal in Jamaica, but was last carried out in 1988 at the St Catherine District Prison. The death penalty was subjected to a moratorium that year, but in 2008, Parliament voted to retain it. In Jamaica, the only offence that warrants the death penalty is aggravated murder, and the punishment is effected by hanging.
However, the resumption of hanging has been affected by a 1993 Privy Council ruling stating that it is unconstitutional to have persons waiting for more than five years after sentencing to be executed. Our Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms (Constitutional Amendment) Act in 2011 overturned that ruling, but there still have not been any hangings here since.
So we find ourselves again debating the sensitive and controversial topic of capital punishment. The overwhelming majority of Jamaicans will agree that something must be done to curb our unacceptable crime rate, especially murders. But is capital punishment the answer?
Today, only 36 countries actively practise capital punishment, with the United Nations General Assembly calling for a global moratorium on executions, with a view to their eventual abolition. However, although capital punishment is not carried out in most countries, more than 60 per cent of the world's population live in countries where executions take place.
Offences meriting the death penalty, termed capital offences, vary from country to country, and include murder, treason, sodomy, human trafficking, apostasy and atheism. The methods used also vary, and include hanging, shooting, electrocution, lethal injection, beheading, and the use of gas chambers.
Objective research and analysis of relevant data, however, indicate that the death penalty is not effective in deterring crime. A study performed in the United States of America in 2008 found that 88 per cent of the nation’s leading criminologists did not believe that the death penalty is an effective deterrent. Subsequently, a report released in 2012 by the National Research Council of the National Academies, based on a review of more than three decades of research, concluded that studies claiming a deterrent effect on murder rates from the death penalty are fundamentally flawed.
The report read: “The committee concludes that research to date on the effect of capital punishment on homicide is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates. Therefore, the committee recommends that these studies not be used to inform deliberations requiring judgments about the effect of the death penalty on homicide.”
Indeed, in that country, states that have death-penalty laws do not have lower crime or murder rates than states without such laws, and states that have abolished capital punishment show no significant changes in either crime or murder rates.
Apart from the absence of convincing evidence demonstrating deterrence, capital punishment presents several other issues. The death penalty violates the right to life. When a person takes the life of another, one may claim that they have forfeited their right to live, a view held by many.
Unfortunately, the death penalty is also discriminatory, and is often used against the most vulnerable in society, including the poor, the illiterate and people with mental disabilities.
Where justice systems are flawed, as in Jamaica, the risk of executing an innocent person is a distinct possibility. Once a person is executed, the result is final. An innocent person can be released from prison for a crime they did not commit, but an execution can never be reversed.
Since 1973, 156 innocent men and women have been exonerated and released from death row in the United States, including some who came within minutes of execution. One study found that approximately four per cent of persons sentenced to death in that country are innocent, and there is strong evidence that at least a dozen persons executed there over the past 40 years were actually not guilty, including a man who was executed in Texas because the jury confused him for another man with the same name and appearance.
In the United Kingdom, the death penalty was abolished partly because a man was wrongfully executed for the murder of his wife and daughter in 1950.
Substandard legal counsel is also a factor, mainly affecting persons of lower socio-economic status. A Columbia University study found that 68 per cent of all death-penalty cases were reversed on appeal, with inadequate defence being one of the main reasons requiring reversal.
Death-penalty trials, and the appeals processes that usually follow, are also likely to be significantly more expensive than trials seeking a sentence of life in prison without parole, and are longer, which would stress our already cash-strapped and frustrating justice system, which perpetually experiences a backlog of cases. Families of murder victims undergo severe trauma, and the extended process of murder trials prior to executions often prolongs their agony.
Even if the death penalty were an effective deterrent, with a murder conviction rate of five per cent in Jamaica, and the levels of corruption in our politics and police force, it would be ineffective, and punishment would not be “sure, swift and just”, as the minister suggested.
The most effective deterrent to crime is the likelihood of getting caught. We need to focus instead on methods to reduce crime and actually apprehend perpetrators, rather than consider executions, which constitute revenge, rather than justice.
Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, comedian and poet. Email feedback to and, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.