We refer to Mr Wong Meng Meng’s article titled ‘Understanding the death penalty’ published in the Straits Times on the 26th of August 2012.
While we welcome the increased discussion on the issue, we would like to take this opportunity to reply to several points made by Mr Wong in his article.
Firstly, in stating that proponents of abolishing the death penalty ‘argue that the death sentence violates a persons due process rights under the rule of law’, Mr Wong fails to draw a distinction between arguments against the mandatory death penalty and the death penalty. While Second Chances believe both punishments are highly problematic, we feel it is important to highlight the difference.
What is often argued is that it is the mandatory death penalty that violates a person’s due process rights. This is because offenders do not get the chance to show why they deserve a less severe punishment, as they would be entitled to do in normal criminal cases. Once you are convicted, you are sentenced to death. Our judges’ hands are tied. And it is our stand that this is cruel and inhuman because punishment needs to be selected according to the circumstances to fit both the crime and the criminal.
While the government recently announced plans to amend the mandatory death penalty for drug offenses and murder, we would go on to argue that an accused person’s due process rights are still infringed under the general criminal justice system. For example, under the Misuse of Drugs Act, a person found in possession of a certain amount of drugs is presumed to be trafficking in the substance. The prosecution does not have to prove that the accused is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Rather, the burden rests on the accused to establish his innocence. To make matters worse, accused persons also do not have an effective right to legal advice at the time of their arrest, uncorroborated confessions can be used to convict the accused and interrogations are not recorded on video.
It is therefore one of our arguments that maintaining the death penalty in a system without these safeguards severely aggravates the problems of the death penalty and violates the very concept of justice. Unfortunately, Mr Wong’s argument that the rule of law is upheld simply because an accused person has a chance to secure an acquittal under the system deals only with academic conceptions of the rule of law, not substantive fairness and justice.
Another point that we would like to address is Mr Wong’s justification for retaining the death penalty. Mainstream proponents of the death penalty usually advance two grounds for its retention. First, that it would serve as a deterrent to future offenders and secondly, that offenders deserve the punishment as retribution for crimes committed and harm caused. Mr Wong however, takes a different approach. He cites various historical examples of the death penalty being used to preserve the moral fabric of society, and concludes that such justification for the punishment is equally valid today. His argument is, with all due respect, misconceived.
We have evolved from ancient times. What was accepted then might not be seen as legitimate now. If we follow Mr Wong’s logic, we should also condone the use of hard labour and torture in order to protect the moral fabric of society. This clearly is not the case today.
Mr Wong’s assertion that ‘executing a murderer effectively kills the problem’ is based on the idea of preventing the offender from causing future harm to society. If we are interested in eradicating problems, then putting murderers in prison for life achieves the same result – an imprisoned person cannot cause harm to society. The death penalty cannot be justifiable on this ground if there are alternative punishments which has the same effect with less sacrifices.
Ironically though, Mr Wong goes on suggests that we should make murderers pay for their crime by working to provide compensation to the victims and their families. This, we feel, might be something worth exploring.
On the issue of drugs, Mr Wong is also of the view that the drug problem cannot be solved simply through the use of the death penalty. We agree. To date there has been scant evidence to suggest that the death penalty is a strong deterrent to crime and the government has not been able to show otherwise. We therefore strongly advocate for the abolishment of the death penalty for drug crimes with life imprisonment used in its place.
Finally, we would also add that the government’s proposed reforms, while a step in the right direction, do not go far enough in addressing concerns over the problems regarding the mandatory death penalty or the death penalty itself. We need a national debate on related issues such as the potential of executing innocent people, its perceived deterrent effect, the potential for reformation and rehabilitation and whether a developed society such as ours should even have such a punishment. And we would repeat our call to give judges full discretion in meting out capital sentences as a first step towards a full moratorium on the death penalty.