Death penalty won’t curb brutal murders
IN the aftermath of the gruesome, senseless and much-publicised murders in Bela-bela and TY, I awaited intently what the reaction of the authorities would be.
Appropriately, and in a manner befitting a true statesman, Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, in extending his condolences to the bereaved families and the nation, was livid and called for the death penalty to be vigorously imposed by the Courts.
This, coming from the highest political office in the land, warrants some response if only because it will reverberate across the length and breadth of Lesotho.
We cannot shy away from the reality that capital punishment is an emotive and topical issue that needs to be handled with extreme care and introspection.
To put the death penalty in its proper perspective, therefore, one needs to state the following legal and social background, and interrogate whether it is really a punishment or state-sanctioned retribution?
The death penalty still exists in our statute books for such offences as aggravated and premeditated murder as well as rape and high treason. It can, thus, be seen from the foregoing that the death penalty is handed-down in very rare, extreme and compelling circumstances.
For the record, the last person to be hanged in Lesotho was executed in 1994. I will not disclose his name here owing to the sanctity of human life and deference to the departed and those who might be adversely affected by the disclosure of his name.
However, the courts still impose the death penalty but it is almost invariably commuted at the Appeal Court. This is for a variety reasons that I will not mention in this column owing to limited space. However, before I set-out my argument against the death penalty, it is instructive to quote from the Holy Scripture, in the Old Testament book of Genesis 1:27 and 2:7, wherein it is said;
“So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female he created them…. Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.”
It follows from the foregoing that all human beings are created in the image of God. If you kill or hurt another human being, you are killing or hurting God himself. By killing, that is, executing the death penalty, the state itself is killing its citizens, contrary to the law of God that “thou shall not kill”.
In calling for the death penalty for the offenders, my humble view, is that the premier’s call was a knee-jerk reaction to an abominable crime that hurts our moral conscience as a nation.
He was under the circumstances, justified in his angry reaction to the crimes. That is as far as I can agree with him. The rationale behind any criminal justice system is to ensure that a person found guilty of a crime should experience some form of punishment. After execution a body becomes a corpse.
Proponents of the death penalty might argue that it has a deterrent effect on the rest of the society. However, this theory is equally flawed in that a number of studies have demonstrated that there is no correlation between the existence of the death penalty and the number and types of crimes committed by people.
In fact, there is no empirical scientific evidence to support the view that the death penalty has an effect on the statistics of violent crime.
If anything, by advocating the death penalty, the state is in effect terrorising, for lack of a better term, the citizenry with an “eye for an eye” flawed argument.
When the rest of the (civilised) world is moving away from the death penalty, Lesotho is being urged to apply it rigorously and routinely.
What an injustice when the whole world is condemning the Islamic Sharia law that is practiced in some Muslim countries and the death penalty in some parts of the world, Lesotho is being urged to apply it vigorously. We are swimming against the tide.
Sharia law is that segment of the Islamic law wherein where the culprit has been found guilty of murder he is beheaded. Wherein he has been found guilty of stealing his hands are cut-off. Wherein he has been found guilty of adultery he is pelted with rocks until he is dead. All these punishments are carried-out in full public glare.
Surely, our political leaders cannot visit these punishment on any citizen, irrespective of the crime he has been convicted of. This sort of punishment is akin to the law of the jungle and the middle ages. Furthermore, it is said in the Scripture that, “revenge is only mine, says the Lord”.
Man is not empowered to exact revenge on a fellow human being. The state exacting revenge on its citizens would lead to an orgy and cycle of violence. Violence only begets violence. It is a recipe for a very violent society with no moral scruples.
It is indeed doubtful whether any state can rightly argue it has determined how many people would have committed murder but were deterred by their fear of execution. It would be a state manned by soothsayers and the omnipotent who are able to see into a society’s future conduct or read our intentions even before we act. In fact, it is a Utopia.
Those who argue for the death penalty say it sends a strong message to would-be murderers and society at large, that the state will come down hard on offenders, and that this will save lives. This argument is flawed in that it presupposes a state that rules by violence, coercion and intimidation.
Such a state has no moral authority to govern if to achieve its objectives it has to use threats. Further, the death penalty gives the guilty party no room to make amend for miscarriages of justice and gives the guilty no time to come to grips with the enormity of the evils they have committed.
In effect, the death penalty goes against the modern thinking of rehabilitative and restorative justice.
Rehabilitative justice seeks to re-integrate the offender into society or at least, make him understand and see the enormity of his evil actions. This begs the question, how is the offender to be rehabilitated if he ends up being, a lifeless corpse. None at all!
Restorative justice seeks to restore the status quo or at least, compensate the victim and their families for their rights that have been violated. The truth of the matter is capital punishment has no effect on the rights of the victims or their families. These still remain the same, irrespective of the punishment.
States, throughout the world, promote and protect the sanctity of human life. If the government that takes offenders’ lives, this goes against the argument that human life is sacrosanct.
Furthermore, my argument that the death penalty will never curb murders in our society, as Basotho, is further fortified by this anecdote, which I often repeat.
Though sceptics might argue that it is now an anachronism, I reckon it is still as valid today as it was more than 200 years ago.
It is testament to our innate psyche as Basotho, in that we are a forgiving people.
It goes like this: During the days of our founder and philosopher King, Moshoeshoe I, his grandfather Peete was eaten by cannibals.
The king instructed his men to catch the cannibals and bring them to his Court. When they finally caught the culprits, contrary to everyone’s expectation, the king ordered that cattle be slaughtered to feed the starving cannibals.
With the cattle’s digested fodder or excrement, if you excuse my language, he ordered that cannibals’ bellies be sprinkled with the digested fodder. With this gesture, instead of punishing them severely or ordering them killed like his grandfather, the king, ordered that they be rehabilitated.
This yet he knew that, despite the enormous power at his disposal, his grandfather’s “grave” was in their bellies. This story goes to teach our leaders that “an eye or an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, retributive principle is counter-productive.
You instill a sense of responsibility in the culprits and give them recognition and time to make amends, then they are more than likely not to re-offend. One of the biggest dangers with the death penalty, still recognised today, is the danger that innocent people would be hanged because of a miscarriage of justice.
Even in developed and scientifically advanced countries where DNA evidence can identify those responsible for the appalling crime, there has been a marked shift from capital punishment because of its sheer brutality, violence and disregard for the sanctity of human life.
It is an even more unacceptable in less advanced and less developed countries like Lesotho, where DNA testing is virtually nonexistent. Every criminal justice system has to have safeguards against convicting innocent people by sheer miscarriage of justice. Further, everybody deserves a second chance in life.
Else most of us, including generally lawabiding citizens, would inevitably end-up behind bars or facing the gallows when a second chance would have afforded them an opportunity to be rehabilitated and reform.
I have seen many hardened criminals reforming fully from their evil deeds because they have been given a second chance. The death penalty leaves no room to make amends.
A criminal justice system that includes the death penalty mistakenly and, contrary to the modern international trend and thinking, moves away from the concept of rehabilitation that also forms the basis of modern criminal justice system.
Further, a criminal justice system should be reflective of the values and aspirations of the people it is supposed to serve.
Else it has no legitimacy. In this regard it was neither in our culture nor our history, as evinced above, to exact retributive punishment on offenders. The death penalty is nothing but a symptom of a state exacting revenge on its errant citizens.
In the book of Luke 6:39, it is said; “Be merciful, just as your father is merciful”. Also in Hebrews 10:29, it is said: “for we know him who said, “it is mine to avenge; I will repay”.
Prime minister Thomas Thabane