The Death Penalty — A perspective from Trinidad and Tobago

I have to state that I do not adhere to the concept of retribution or revenge. I believe that such feelings may do harm to the persons who harbour them. I give hereafter the views of a Jesuit Priest, Raymond A. Schroth, as stated in the website on Death Penalty: “Retribution is just another name for revenge, and the desire for revenge is one of the lowest human emotions – perhaps sometimes understandable, but not really a rational response to a critical situation. To kill a person who has killed someone close to you is simply to continue the cycle of violence which ultimately destroys the avenger as well as the offender.  That this execution somehow gives “closure” to a tragedy is a myth. Expressing ones violence reinforces the desire to express it. Just as expressing anger simply makes us more angry”.

I was horrified recently to hear a leading politician say that he is in favour of flogging. I am not one who believes on excessive dwelling on the past but that anyone who knows the history of slavery in this country should advocate that we should return to one of the worst aspects of that time leads me to the dismal conclusion that there is little hope for a meaningful solution to the violence of our present circumstances. That one of our leaders should be so insensitive to the social aspects of our situation is most depressing.


One of the greatest problems with the death penalty is the possibility (or even the certainty) that mistakes will be made and innocent persons will be put to death.  Obviously such mistakes cannot be corrected. Many errors have been discovered by modern methods of DNA testing.

In the year 2000 Russ Feigold, US Senator, is quoted in Pro-Con as stating: “since the reinstatement of the modern death penalty 87 people have been freed from death row because they were later proven to be innocent. That is a demonstrated error rate of 1 innocent person for every seven persons executed”.

It may, however be argued that now that we have DNA as an investigative tool errors are less likely to occur. But if these errors have occurred in the Unites States how much more are errors likely to occur in Trinidad and Tobago where low detection rates speak to the inefficiency of the investigative system?

In the United States Stanley Tookie Williams maintained to the time of his execution that he was innocent of the crimes for which he was eventually executed and there are still persons working to prove his innocence. However there seems to be little doubt that the Crips gang which he co-founded committed many serious crimes. But Williams’ importance lies in the fact that in prison he was converted into a person whose subsequent writings evidently had a great influence in leading young people away from a life of crime. He was nominated on six occasions for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Whether innocent or guilty of the crimes for which he was executed, the story of his early childhood must be similar to that of many gang members in this country. I venture to suggest that there are not many of us, however sanctimonious we may be, who can say with certainty that we would not have fallen into his gang life if we had been placed in similar circumstances. His life story was made into a TV movie in 2004 starring Jamie Fox entitled: “Redemption-the Stan Tookie Williams Story”.

Income level and /or race and Quality of legal representation.

In my view the overwhelming issue in Trinidad and Tobago is income level. There can be little doubt that the vast majority of those who commit murder and therefore are sentenced to death are from lower income households in depressed areas. Any factors of race or ethnicity are related to urban or rural demographic factors and these are related to the history of the way in which this country became populated. It is unfortunate that the University of the West Indies (UWI) does not seem to have a strong history of research in the social sciences. Guidance on these matters should come from UWI. There can be little doubt that income level could be related to the ability to obtain the most outstanding defence lawyers. However there is legal aid from which there will be supplied very competent lawyers. In addition in this country there are many very able lawyers who are against the death penalty and who will defend condemned persons without payment of fees.

Income level is very important in affecting the chances of young people being drawn into circumstances that can eventually lead to their committing murder.

Of the issues that I have discussed in this article for me the deciding factor on the death penalty is the moral issue. Constitutionality can be addressed by changes to the constitution-although these may have to include removal of some of our human rights provisions. It does not seem to be widely appreciated that if we remove the 1925 legislation and replace it by new death penalty legislation then execution may be challenged on the basis that it is unconstitutional because of other provisions of  the constitution. There seems to be divided legal opinion locally on this matter but previous Privy Council decisions would seem to suggest that legal challenges would be successful.

The 1925 Act cannot be challenged on such grounds since it was enacted prior to the passing of our constitution and was “saved” by a clause therein. I am extremely surprised to hear it being said by some persons that this can be solved by removal of the Privy Council and its replacement by the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ). Such a view implies a poor opinion of both the Privy Council and the CCJ. It suggests that these courts are being influenced by their view on the death penalty and not by their interpretation of the Constitution and the law.

The data on deterrence is conflicting and for every source that one can quote that the death penalty is a deterrent there will be another that one can quote that it is not. Reports suggest mistakes have been made in the United States and innocent persons have been executed. For me this puts the discussion again into the issue of morality. The issues of income level and /or race and quality of legal representation also raise moral questions. If faults in the education system (for which we must all take some blame for electing political parties that have not improved the system) have led to products of the system being unemployable and thereby becoming members of “killing” gangs do we have moral right to in turn kill such persons? To address this issue I shall quote form Pope John Paul II (July 2000):

“We are still a long way from the time when our conscience can be certain of having done everything possible to prevent crime and to control it effectively, so that it no longer does harm and, at the same time, to offer to those that commit crime a way of redeeming themselves and making a positive return to society.  If all those in some way involved in the problem tried to develop this line of thought, perhaps humanity as a whole could take a great step forward in creating a more serene and peaceful society”.

For me the moral dilemma is: can I at the same time hold that human life is sacred and killing is immoral and support that the state should kill? Killing in war may be justified-but not in all wars. Do we consider that the wars in Viet Nam or Iraq, where thousands of people were killed, justified?

I believe that killing for revenge is immoral. I believe that a system that may result in innocent persons being killed by the state is immoral.

I believe that it is the duty of the state to protect citizens but not by itself committing immoral acts. It may also mean that some murderers may have to be jailed for the rest of their natural lives. There must be in place programmes to help the families of murder victims. Incarcerated murderers should be required to work and any income earned thereby should go to the families of victims.

Substantial social programmes to help our youth (not the present small efforts), a good education system, a strong economy with full employment, social safety nets, good policing to remove guns and the drug trade, and a high detection rate for crimes must all be priority.

John Spence is Professor Emeritus, UWI, St. Augustine Campus. He also served as an independent senator.


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