The death penalty has not been carried out in Guyana since 1997. While it is true that there has been a large increase in murders since then, murders have equally soared in countries which have abolished the death penalty like South Africa as well as in countries which have not, like Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. The latter two and Belize are among the top ten countries for intentional homicide that have the death penalty. Three of these top ten countries that do not have the death penalty are Venezuela, El Salvador and Honduras.
The fact that the death penalty is not a deterrent to intentional homicide has long been established. For this reason, in recent decades the argument in relation to the death penalty has never been about the statistics, although supporters have disregarded them. At the core, the argument has always been about revenge, the eye for an eye philosophy.
The reducing number of States which support capital punishment continue to advance the argument that justice requires that the taking a life should legitimately result in a life being taken in return. The argument of justice is really the eye for an eye argument. Revenge is being openly touted as a principle of governance, at least in our region. The negative impact of this officially advocated revenge philosophy, justifying the taking of human life, on the mentality of succeeding generations of young people ought not to be underestimated.
But justice must also make sense. Punishment by execution is no punishment at all. It ends when the State exacts the penalty. Punishment of the perpetrator is of limited duration ending with the act of execution. After that, it’s over. The only satisfaction for the relatives of the victim is that the perpetrator no longer has a life to enjoy. But the perpetrator does not know. He (or she) is dead. Unless the victim’s relatives believe in a mythical hell where the perpetrator will burn for eternity, the act of execution can provide no relief from the pain of loss. Deprivation of freedom for extended periods is a much more effective penalty. It is among the severest known to humankind.
In the socially conservative Caribbean region, the death penalty is strongly supported, not only by Governments, but also by the people. But Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago have refused to sign on to the CCJ, the judges of which may be more likely to be swayed by the conservative sentiments of the region. These countries have remained with the ‘liberal’ Privy Council, which has delivered body blows to the death penalty.
In the Jamaican case of Pratt v Morgan, decided in 1993, the Privy Council ruled that a sentence of death cannot be carried out more than five years after it was imposed. It held that this would be cruel and usual punishment, contrary to the Jamaican Constitution. The Privy Council later held in 2006 in appeals from the Bahamas by appellants, Forrester Bowe and Trono Davis, that the death penalty was not mandatory. The region burned with rage. But in 2010 Guyana nodded at the decision by removing the death penalty for some intentional homicides and retaining it for only the most egregious.
However, Guyana has given no recognition to Pratt v Morgan and has not commuted the death sentences of prisoners who have spent more than five years on death row. Many prisoners have been languishing there for decades, next to the gallows, with or without cases pending in court.
Guyana did not decide to suspend death penalties because of any views our leaders may have one way or the other. We stumbled upon suspension because as soon as the procedure for execution was set in motion, the prisoner would institute a court case to quash the warrant. Our slow dispensation of justice resulted in these prisoners having had stays of execution for many years now. The Government may well have decided that there is no way around the strategy being employed by prisoners and have accepted defeat.
The time has come for this matter to be tested in court, the Government having failed to formally commute. Such a case would have to contend with the argument that the State attempted to execute them but the lengthy delays are of the making of the prisoners because they choose to institute court cases. The answer would be that it is the right of the prisoners to institute court cases and the responsibility of the State to ensure that the cases are completed within the five-year period.
This situation ought to encourage campaigners to call for, at least ad interim, an official moratorium on the death penalty, which might be more achievable in the short term. The jury system has virtually collapsed and a conviction and a death sentence are rarities anyway.
However, the case for formal abolition of the death penalty in Guyana must continue to be advocated with vigour. It does not have to be supported by the majority of the population. In most countries where abolition took place, it was not. Appropriate legislative action with the whip deployed as it has been for everything, officially and unofficially, would obtain majority support.
(In support of World Day Against the Death Penalty, October 10.)