Trinidad should stop trying to bring the death penalty back from the dead

For all I know the Trinidadian prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar may have a long-held personal belief in the value of capital punishment.

She may even be a member of what we (rather over-quaintly) used to call the “hang ‘em and flog ‘em” brigade.

Certainly she’s recently been reported as saying that the death penalty is a "weapon in [Trinidad and Tobago’s] arsenal" to fight the murder rate. And on her Facebook she says: “The Government that I have the honour to lead will ensure that this law is implemented and convicted murderers must suffer and pay the ultimate price by having the sentence of death carried out.”

Being “tough” on crime has rarely been a vote loser for politicians, but I’d say to her that if she’s chasing popular support with the death penalty she is also storing up trouble for herself (as well as playing fast and loose with international law).

Look at what she says: (1) it’s a deterrent and (2) it’s right (they “must suffer and pay the ultimate price”).

First deterrence. There’s no evidence that capital punishment is an effective deterrent against committing murder or other serious crime. Politicians should base their assertions (especially on controversial areas like this) on evidence and Ms Persad-Bissessar can find plenty of evidence about the lack of evidence on the “deterrent factor” here.

Second, the supposed rightness. This is obviously a subjective moral judgment, but as any government leader should be aware international norms on the death penalty are moving more and more toward a consensus view that it should be abolished. In other words, T&T is placing itself in a minority of the world’s countries with its rediscovered enthusiasm for an increasingly obsolete (not to say discredited and widely reviled) part of the justice system. Indeed, at the same time as Persad-Bissessar was going in the “pro” direction, the US state of Montana has been motoring along the “abolitionist” route. When the biggest user of the punishment in the Americas (the USA) is moving away from the death penalty, why is T&T going the other way?

One reason the USA is falling out of love with capital punishment is the publicity surrounding some horribly botched executions where lethal injections have gone wrong. For some (grisly) details see here. And also see Oliver Sprague’s alarming explanation of how lax export controls in the UK have seen lethal injection drugs being sourced from the UK contrary to the UK government’s own legal obligations. 

Trinidad and Tobago hasn’t executed anyone for over a decade but when it did it used to use the hangman’s rope not the needle, so Persad-Bissessar may think she’s safe in this respect. But hangings go wrong as well (eg Saddam Hussein’s half brother Barzan Ibrahim's was apparently a grotesquely botched affair in Iraq). And of course, there’s another sense in which they malfunction: when the wrong person is executed. This is the spectre that’s currently haunting prosecutors’ offices in all the “death penalty” states in the USA.

Crime is a real problem in Trinidad and Tobago, but resorting to the death penalty is thoroughly misguided (far better to plough some money into improving the capacity of the police to detect and solve crimes). T&T’s PM should stop acting tough over capital punishment and abandon this unpleasant attempt to bring it back from the dead.


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