Debate on Death Penalty Continues


The debate on the retention of the death penalty continued in the House of Representatives yesterday (Nov. 18), with strong views from both sides, although the arguments for, outnumbered those that were against.
In a sitting that saw a total of 15 members making contributions, the common view expressed, was that steps should be urgently taken to advance the complete overhaul of the justice system to ensure that the process was fair, and that the method of death should include the electric chair, or death by injection, and should not be restricted to hanging.
Minister of Finance and the Public Service, and Member of Parliament (MP) for North Eastern Manchester, Audley Shaw, in arguing for the death penalty, said that capital punishment is not a desirable act for any Government to administer, but is, “forced by the harsh realities of the time, and is merely one instrument among many in the fight to restore peace, security, and justice to the land”.
“It is reserved for those individuals who have premeditated, planned and executed the taking of another person’s life, and for those who have committed violent crimes against mankind. The Government has a responsibility to ensure that justice is administered. The case for justice, I believe, must be the strongest argument for the use of the death penalty,” he stated.
Of the suggestions that life imprisonment is an alternative form of punishment, Mr. Shaw said justice is not served when “one who has mercilessly slaughtered a fellow human being, is made to live out the rest of his days from a comfortable cell at the expense of the taxpaying dollars of the victim’s family”.
However, he acknowledged that there is a radical breakdown in basic standards of civil society, and that there is an urgent need to begin the process of re-engineering and re-socialising of the country, where respect for one another and for the sanctity of human life can be restored.
He said that for “those who are offended by the grotesque nature of being hung by the neck until you are dead, as the law states, I offer two concessions.that we amend the law to include death by lethal injection, or death by the electric chair”.
Member of Parliament for South Manchester, Michael Peart, while supporting the retention of the death penalty, pointed out that the investigative system needs to be enhanced, as unless people see the state demonstrate competence in carrying out justice, there will not be much progress in fighting crime. He emphasised that the country faces an “extraordinary” situation in organised crime, and that a clear and unequivocal message has to be sent to perpetrators that the Government is serious.
Leader of the Opposition, Portia Simpson Miller, in the meantime, urged the Government to move swiftly to implement the recommendations made for the comprehensive reform of the justice system, and to energise the population to become more involved in the justice reform agenda. She said the Government must work assiduously to implement the accompanying social programmes, and that Parliament must be bold in the positions that it takes in moving in a direction that will ensure justice for Jamaicans. Mrs. Simpson Miller also supported the elimination of hanging as the method of death, in favour of other less unsavoury methods.
In his contribution, Minister of Industry, Investment and Commerce, and MP for North Central St. Andrew, Karl Samuda, pointed to the need for more attention to be placed on family life.
“Especially in those communities where they have not been exposed to the level of training and involvement that is necessary… the skills and talent that reside in some of these communities are endless. That is the future of Jamaica. That is where we are going to build the kind of society that we want, and that is where our emphasis, our resources, our energies must be placed, so that we can change the mindset,” he stated.
Member of Parliament for South Eastern St. Andrew, Maxine Henry Wilson, in arguing against the death penalty, stated that, “there is no evidence that the introduction of capital punishment has led to any reduction in murder in any jurisdiction. If we have hanging, and the outcome is not what we anticipated or desired, what is next? We are not catching the criminals, and that is the fundamental issue”.
She noted that, “those who have committed some of the most dastardly crimes are still out there, and therefore before you can hang them, you have to catch them.there is much to be done before we go down the road of enforcing capital punishment. We have to look at the whole question of the police force and its capability. We have to look at our judicial system”.
Arguing against the death penalty, Member of Parliament for South Trelawny Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert, warned against what she said was the “passion for revenge”. “Our nation at this point in our history calls out for healing. Our society cannot remove the culture of death by promoting the death penalty.what is the signal that we send, when we tell the society that we can now resolve the problem of crime and violence by executing the killer?” she asked.
Although the death penalty is still on the law books, there has not been an execution in Jamaica since the late 1980s. A landmark decision by the Privy Council in the Pratt and Morgan case (1993), upheld the Constitutional guarantee against cruel and inhumane punishment.
The ruling held that where the time period between the imposition of a sentence of death and execution exceeds five years, it shall be presumed that execution would amount to inhumane or degrading punishment or treatment, which is contrary to the Jamaican Constitution. Consequently, the Governor-General refers all such cases to the Privy Council, which recommends commutation to life imprisonment.
Throughout the Caribbean region, some independent states have retained the death penalty for murder, but as a result of the decision of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Lambert Watson versus the Attorney General of Jamaica in 2004, mandatory sentences of death are no longer allowed, as in each death penalty case, the sentencing judges are obliged to consider whether or not the person found guilty of murder should be executed.
Under the pre-existing system in Jamaica, as long as the accused was found guilty for certain types of murder, then the sentence of death was automatic. However, in the Lambert Watson case, the Privy Council said this approach amounted to inhumane or degrading punishment or treatment, as it required the sentencing judge to impose a sentence without regard to the individuality and individual circumstances of the guilty person.
The debate before Parliament seeks to illicit a conscience vote from each member, which will determine whether the death penalty is retained. The House will vote on the motion today (Nov. 19).

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