Hidden victims of the death penalty

By Priscilla Chia

These 7 years have been especially hard for Uncle Cheong and his family.

His son, Cheong Chun Yin was arrested and charged for drug trafficking, on 18th June 2008. He was  convicted and given a death sentence.

In 2012, the mandatory death penalty regime was amended to give judges a limited amount of discretion in sentencing where a person has been convicted of drug trafficking that is punishable with death. The offender has to show that his/her involvement was limited to that of a “courier”, and that he/she had substantively assisted the authorities in disrupting the activities of drug syndicates in Singapore.

Chun Yin managed to meet both requirements after the Public Prosecutor certified that he has provided substantive assistance. Last Monday, Justice Choo Han Teck re-sentenced Chun Yin to life imprisonment with 15 strokes of the cane.

While Uncle Cheong is relieved that Chun Yin’s life has been spared, it is clear that the thought of his son  never coming home weighs heavily on his mind.

“Its tough. I hope he can come home early”, Uncle Cheong tells us tearfully, “I am old already and might be gone soon but I still hope to live to be able to see my son come home”.

Uncle Cheong has often told us that he will kill himself should Chun Yin be hanged. The resentencing has given Uncle Cheong and his family new hope. But what of the families of inmates who were executed before the change in the law? And what about families of death row inmates who may have been wrongly accused?

We often forget that when the State metes out this kind of “justice”, it creates a new class of victims – the condemned family and loved ones. The secrecy surrounding the death penalty means that we are often blinded to their sufferings.

Having worked with the families of death row inmates, we have witnessed firsthand, how the mental anguish of having a loved one on death row causes families to break apart, turn against each other, and results in them being unable to move on with their lives.

These families find themselves frequently struggling with a sense of helplessness, shame and unbearable grief as they watch the state prepare to kill their loved ones. The pain is unspeakable, the burden, immense.Worse, they are sometimes accused of having failed in their responsibilities of being good parents, grandparents, siblings or spouses, further intensifying the stigma and their feelings of alienation.

Although the condemned family and loved ones are the most deeply affected by the death penalty, their voices have been excluded from the debate surrounding the death penalty. They are left to confront this traumatic process alone.

This was the other side of the death penalty nobody really knew, much less cared about. Most of us have never considered that those on death row have people who love them too, much less consider how their executions impact on their family and loved ones.

While we recognize and respect the views of families of those murdered who might find the death penalty to be a means to come to terms with their loss, however, the basis of any civilized criminal justice system should never be rooted in emotional responses.

Ultimately, the cruelty of the death penalty sees no end.

It deprives inmates of their human dignity and life, there is every possibility that innocent individuals might be wrongfully executed, and it creates a new class of victims. It is a tragedy at many levels especially for the condemned families and loved ones. And all this is being done under a false and unproven belief that the death penalty deters.


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