Understanding the Law
October 14, 2011
Capital Punishment

On September 21 2011, Troy Davis of Atlanta Georgia was put to death, having been found guilty of killing a policeman in 1989. He had exhausted all his appeals and he insisted on his innocence up to his death. We might be tempted to say that this is a watertight case as it reached all the way to the Supreme Court, but then claims have been made that some of the witnesses recanted their evidence and no retrial was afforded him.{{more}} Human rights activists and supporters demonstrated outside the prison, but nothing could save his life. He died by lethal injection.

Pratt and Morgan

If Troy Davis had lived in our jurisdiction, he may have been alive today. He would have been spared, as anyone who is on death row for five years cannot be executed. Troy Davis could have been serving a life sentence in jail. This state of affairs is a result of the precedent set by the Privy Council in the Jamaican case of Pratt and Morgan in 1993. The seven Law Lords thought that to execute some one after holding him in agony for more than five years was inhumane and degrading punishment. Earl Pratt and Ivan Morgan spent 14 years on death row after being convicted of shooting a man. This was after the death warrant was read to them three times and they were moved three times to the condemned cell in sight and sound of the gallows.

Is the death penalty a deterrent?

Every time there is a spate of killing there is always a renewed call for the hangman’s noose. Reporters from SVG TV brought a group of persons who all voiced their opinion in favour of hanging. Coming close after an old woman was murdered, these people believe that hanging would serve as a deterrent. There are studies that show that the death penalty is not a deterrent to killings. Ronnie Lee Gardner of Utah in the USA was being tried for the murder of one man, yet he shot a lawyer while being transported to the courtroom in an unsuccessful attempt to get away. It is generally believed that hanging is a gruesome form of punishment, and some countries have opted for the electric chair or lethal injection. Hanging of persons requires the presence of some government officers. This is perhaps the single duty that I feared when I was Registrar of the High Court because I know that the image would have stayed with me for a very long time. Fortunately, I did not have to witness a hanging.

No good reason for killing

The death penalty has not been implemented recently in SVG, and so many are of the opinion that if it were put into use there would be fewer killings. I abhor the senseless killing, and it is time for murderers to understand that life is sacred and that a life should not be taken on the spur of the moment or to satisfy a thirst for revenge. We still do not understand what moves the killer, but we are all convinced that he must pay the cost to society, and many do believe that anyone who takes another life must pay with his own life. So the court system is designed to try the murderer and give him his just punishment. But what if the court does not convict the right person? There is a real fear that the wrong person could be found guilty and that would be a tragedy. Death is final, and if the truth is told afterwards, there is no way of reinstating an innocent man. There are many cases in the US where DNA evidence has exonerated persons who were convicted on eyewitnesses’ accounts.

Let us explore some ways in which we can help to prevent persons from committing unlawful killings. The killings are causing fears among our people. This is certainly not the life that we want in this blessed country of ours.

Ada Johnson is a solicitor and barrister-at-law.
E-mail address is: exploringthelaw@yahoo.com