Say No to the Death Penalty! Geneva, Day 2, Evening workshop

Elaborating arguments to convince public opinion

Influencing public opinion was acknowledged across the 3 days of the World Congress to be a key challenge facing the abolitionist movement. In some countries, and States of the USA, even those which are currently without the death penalty, point-in-time polls have revealed staggering public support for executions. There are some massive caveats around this which we’ll revisit in other posts in coming days, however the point is that some governments are hiding behind ‘the will of the people’ to refuse to even begin to negotiate on terms for abolition. Furthermore, we mustn’t forget that even in Europe, where we are lucky to have almost total rejection of capital punishment at statutory and constitutional level, this remains an emotive topic; so popular that it’s not inconceivable pressure could increase to reinstate it in some regions ‘for the worst crimes’. Of course in Europe this would never in all likelihood gain traction given the steadfast position of the European Union on Human Rights; but it remains important to consider, as a general theme, arguments which we can draw on to remind people or persuade them that the death penalty is a bad thing. So it was useful to hear in this session about two very personal perspectives which campaigning groups are drawing on to attempt to remind the public at large why the death penalty makes no sense.

Wrongful conviction, exoneration and enlightenment

In this workshop we heard from Joaquín José Martínez, a former death row inmate of Florida, now exonerated and living in Spain, and from Bill Pelke, co-founder of  ‘Journey of Hope’, whose grandmother was murdered. The panel was moderated by David Lindorff, a freelance journalist and author of ‘Killing Time’, a report on the facts surrounding the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Joaquin Jose Martinez

Joaquin Jose Martinez

Joaquín told us his story. He had once been an arrogant upstart, a supporter of the death penalty and blessed with a good upbringing and education. He used to say things like ‘Why wait to execute ’em?’ He was a successful business man in his early twenties with two young daughters, and already going through a somewhat acrimonious divorce. Now, he looks back and knows, from what happened to him, and from what he witnessed while he was on death row, just why he was so wrong.

In 1996 a double homicide in Tampa, Florida, occurred. There was a huge public outcry to find the killer and see justice served, augmented by the fact that the victim was the son of a local sheriff. Altogether 12 suspects were arrested in connection with the killings, and Joaquín was one of them – but why? It transpires that his estranged wife decided to incriminate him out of spite, perhaps not fully cognisant of the potential outcome. She told police that he had given her information which would appear to implicate himself, and that she had it on tape. In short, Joaquín was convicted on the basis of an alleged confession, and one way or another the police managed to stitch him up completely with ‘lost’ evidence, inaudible recordings and the unreliable testimony of his embittered ex-wife. In his arrogant naivety, and given the lack of any evidence anyway, Joaquín had not really believed that he would come badly out of his trial and had engaged his personal business lawyer to defend him, rather than spend decent money on a fully competent lawyer.

Subsequently, in 1997, Joaquín ended up on death row. Even as recently as that, the default method of execution in Florida was the electric chair. Joaquín tells how the prison would test the chair every week, and the effect that had on the inmates. The row would be quiet and still; he recalls hearing inmates crying as the lightbulbs dimmed along the block. Is this not mental torture?

Eventually, with the help of his parents and family back in Spain, Joaquín managed to raise enough money (about $1 million) for a ‘proper’ defense and his case was eventually appealed and overturned. Through the love of those who believed in him, he managed to gain the support of senators, press, and a retrial at which the maximum sentence available would be life in prison. But he was freed.  He now lives in Spain, but stays in touch with his daughters, speaking to his ex-wife daily.

Joaquín understands the emotions that someone feels when you lose someone to violent crime. Hate, rage, desire for vengeance, these are all things he himself had the misfortune to endure when his own grandfather was later killed. But he acknowledges that he could have seen the perpetrator electrocuted a hundred times over and the pain of loss would not be lessened. Today Joaquín tours, speaks and campaigns against the death penalty.

Forgiveness vs revenge

Bill Pelke pointed out that exonerees are not saved by the system, but in spite of it. He said the death penalty is cruel and it is unnecessary, not just to the condemned, but to their families as well.

‘As long has human beings make decisions, they will make mistakes,’ he said. ‘But people will listen to other people’s stories, it’s very compelling.’

Bill Pelke with Sister Helen Prejean and Susan Sarandon

Bill Pelke with Sister Helen Prejean and Susan Sarandon

Journey of Hope knows that if you can touch people’s hearts you can change their minds. So it is murder victims’ family members who lead the association, which also includes families of the condemned, of the executed, exonerees and general activists. They undertake speaking engagements and tours to reach out to communities, schools and other groups, to help them to understand that there are no number of retaliatory deaths that can replace a loved one. He quoted that the death penalty is nothing more than the ‘animal instinct for gut-level, bloodthirsty revenge.’

Bill and his colleagues believe  that  love and compassion is the answer. Healing is what victims need, not revenge. Bill himself lost his grandmother to murder… And knew that she would have been horrified to think her murderer would perish in turn. Forgiveness is what has helped Bill to heal.

Bill told us about his grandmother’s killer, Paula Cooper. She was only 15 in 1985 when the murder occurred, but this was prior to the introduction in the USA of legal prohibition of the execution of minors, and so she was sentenced to death. At first, Bill was glad, and wanted nothing more than to see his gentle grandmother’s killer executed; but then upon reflection he came to realise that his grandmother, a Bible teacher, would have wanted compassion. After her conviction, news of the young girl being condemned reached Italy, and a campaign was begun there to petition for Paula Cooper’s life. Bill could scarcely believe the strength of compassion coming from abroad, as in his home state of Indiana everyone wanted the girl dead, and as soon as possible. Ultimately, the state legislators were extremely embarrassed by the international attention and raised the age limit for death eligibility to 16; but no mercy for Paula. Eventually, with Bill speaking out at every turn to say he did not want the girl to be executed, the sentence was commuted to 60 years in prison.

In 2014 Paula Cooper will become eligible for parole. She committed her crime and was condemned at 15. Upon release she will be 44 and a completely different person. Bill has remained in close touch with her over the years, and knows she will need tremendous support and rehabilitation to re-enter the outside world.

‘On the day Paula is released, I will meet her at the gates,’ said Bill. ‘She has already agreed to come with me wherever I want to go. “You saved my life,” she tells me’.

Bill has plans to take Paula touring with him and Journey of Hope to continue telling their story of violence, hurt, lives lost and lives saved, and the reconciliation that has ultimately enriched and directed Bill’s own life.

So in conclusion, the theme of the session was to set the scene for an elaboration on a few of the reasons why the death penalty needs to be abolished, via a pair of extremely close-up and poignant perspectives.

  1. The innocent man condemned, who escaped death, and has learned to forgive and completely turned his youthfully ignorant views on their head.
  2. And the victim’s family member who not only forgave his grandmother’s killer, but was instrumental in saving her and is a role model for reconciliation and restoration.
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Say No to the Death Penalty! Day two in Geneva – afternoon plenary session

A daily blog from the 4th World Congress Against the Death Penalty, Geneva, Switzerland

OK – this is a long post – it was a long session!

International and Regional Organizations: commitments to abolition of the death penalty

The afternoon session at the Centre International des Congrès de Genève was a large-scale plenary session with a series of panels. The purpose was to give a ‘state of the world’ overview of where we are at, globally speaking, with the death penalty, and what instruments are at our disposal with regards to both opportunities and challenges/obstacles. This post does get rather long-winded – but please take a moment to read through as there were some very revealing anecdotes and useful points of view given.

First up were representatives from major civil bodies: the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the European Commission. 

Examples of Instruments at Europe’s disposal

  • Instruments available for Human Rights within Europe include money for funding  – some £8 million is set aside annually for the management of around 16 abolitionist projects around the world.
  • Specific sanctions: internal EU rules prohibit the trade in tools of execution and torture: gallows, guillotines, automatic drug injection systems such as those used in the lethal injection procedure, for example.
  • The Council of Europe has added articles to European Law aimed at human rights and capital punishment is a priority. The Russian Federation is the only state in the Council of Europe not to have adopted this but it has at least set up a moratorium, and no executions have occurred since 1997. Russia is now committed to a path leading to eventual abolition.
  • Additionally, protocol 13 of the Treaty of the Council of Europe has also now been ratified prohibiting executions in wartime.

The Shame of Europe

Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe – it would not sign to the requirements and so was kicked out. It is the sole European state to retain the death penalty.

Staying on-message in Europe

Other things that have been done: lobbying; the Council of Europe organized an international Day against the death Penalty. There is a consciousness that in spite of progress in Europe, the death penalty is still a popular and emotive subject (and potential vote-winner). States require constant persuasion that it is wrong, doesn’t work, and should remain abolished. This, the panellists acknowledged, is a constant struggle.

Observation and intervention in non-member states.

The Council of Europe has a role to intervene in individual cases in the USA and Japan to argue for stays and/or clemency

Next, panellists were asked about current obstacles to abolition. The following were notes I took on the responses

  • Russia and South Africa demonstrate how quickly change can happen. Just a few years ago they both maintained that the death penalty was ‘very popular’ domestically and said they had the high crime rates to warrant it (!.) Today, each of them have either abolished or committed to abolish the death penalty.
  • Anecdotally, Ireland recently hosted a re-introduction debate; which was ended with immediate effect when they realised they would have to leave the European Union. So – international law works.
  • A later panellist told a similar story about a recent visit to Albania, where a discussion about ending culture of blood feuds descended into a positing that re-introducing the death penalty would solve it (because family members would not have to seek vengeance if the state did it for them when a loved one was murdered). Reminding Albania that this would mean having to leave the EU and Council of Europe put a swift end to the argument.
  • This niggling to reinstate the death penalty is a common theme. Individuals respond to heinous crimes by saying we need to bring back the death penalty. This is something which needs to be addressed across Europe at the popular level. The arguments are clear:
    • The death penalty is NOT a deterrent
    • All sorts of practices which once were considered acceptable and normal are today inconceivable in modern culture and for decent people: slavery; restricted franchise for women…
    • DNA advances mean that proof of innocence is increasingly being shown for the wrongfully condemned. Laws of averages imply that this is just the tip of the iceberg when you consider how many wrongfully convicted inmates are still on death rows or worse, have been executed.
  • This popular sentiment obstacle could be overcome in part by creating allies for the cause amongst the business world: corporate social responsibility could include refusal to invest in countries or states where the death penalty exists.

Note – nobody on the panel mentioned educating the young; this however, did come up more than once in the evening session hosted by Journey of Hope  , campaigning organisation run by families of victims, and Joaquim José Martinez , an exoneree (next post).

Human Dignity and the Right to Life

Manfred Nowak, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture gave an interesting presentation summarising his recent report to the UN on the right to human dignity.  This right is written all across International Law and Codes, and includes treatment of slavery, torture, cruel and inhumane punishment. He made the point that in 1950, only 8 countries had abolished for all crimes, and only 11 more for ‘ordinary crimes’.  At that time, corporal punishment was also practised. Today, corporal punishment is widely considered CIDP (Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Punishment).  So our understanding of what constitutes degrading punishment has evolved.

Today, 138 countries (two-thirds of all states) have abolished the death penalty. Some states continue to separate CIDP from the ‘right to life’ element of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its flavours in constitutional law. e.g. The USA – they do not condone CIDP and yet they do not recognise the right to life. This ‘separate’ interpretation is no longer compelling though – by extension, if every other form of physically injurious punishment is degrading, how can capital punishment not also be cruel?

Nowak believes the UN needs a fresh look at the relationship between human dignity and the right to life to reinforce the connection.

The OSCE (Organisation for Security and C… Of Europe)

This body includes ALL European states and the USA. Of this group, only the USA and Belarus are retentionist. There is no OSCE ‘commitment’ against the death penalty as this requires a consensus – and the USA and Belarus will not agree. But, states have committed to some things, such as making information public. So – the OSCE is able to publish the facts and this increases pressure on the non-conformists to some degree. They are also subject to peer ridicule: the matter of the death penalty is raised at weekly meetings with these states – again this increases pressure on them from outside to abolish.

African nations – summary of approach

First off, it was noted that African nations do comment that the USA still carries out the death penalty, while they are all being asked to sign moratoria – and this sends out an inconsistent signal.

The context in Africa is one of believing that “we cannot afford to keep incorrigible, dangerous individuals in society” so we need to kill them.

The world is divided between retentionists and abolitionists. In Africa this division is serious: culture, history, colonialism have all taken their toll in creating strong pro-death-penalty views. On the other hand, human rights organisations have been able to make some headway putting the opposite case. Efforts across the African nations are focussed on two areas:

  1. How do we disentrench capital punishment from penal codes?
  2. Attempting to embed the ‘right to life’ in national constitutions.

Across the Arab-African world, the only nation to have abolished the death penalty is the smallest – Djibouti. It can’t help but be noticed that most countries across the entire Arab and African region which have the death penalty are Muslim. Islam plays a key role here. Despite many discussions with Sharia Islamists about the right to life, they still promote the death penalty for

  1. Murder
  2. Apostasy (rejection of the Muslim faith)
  3. Adultery

Tales from Asia and the Middle East

Philip Alston of the UN Human Rights Council admits he gets nowhere with the Middle East. In Iran, persistent execution of juveniles is unquestionably against international law. They have no compunction whatsoever about this in Iran. It’s the same in Saudi Arabia. Neither country responds to UN HR Council correspondence.

[Note there was no opportunity ( or time) to ask questions during the course of the afternoon panel. I would have liked to know whether the UN could recommend or enforce further economic sanctions against these countries to force them to talk about Human Rights.]

In the Philippines, the death penalty has been abolished. In effect this is because the Philippines is a great exporter of labour, and they were finding that a lot of its migrant workers were being executed with impunity in the Middle East. So they were forced to get rid of the death penalty themselves in order to get that ‘off their books’.

Singapore: the judge is obliged to sentence a person to death for drug possession, even the smallest amount. There is zero tolerance. This contravenes international law as no due consideration is given to potential extenuating circumstances. Singapore’s reaction to Philips’s attempts to visit is complete rejection. However that said, Singapore’s execution rate has reduced in recent years.

In Indonesia there is currently a stated commitment to the death penalty but ongoing pressure both internal and external to abolish [no opportunity here to ask question about the recent introduction of Sharia Law to national penal code]. Interestingly, in Indonesia there is an inexplicably high number of foreigners on death row. It is unclear whether this is down to police or court discrimination, because obviously it is not just foreigners who handle drugs. But discrimination is surely indicated.

In Thailand there are some 757 currently on death rows in Bangkok alone. These convicts are hungry for information as they are kept completely in the figurative ( and possibly physical) dark. They are permanently shackled, crowded, share cramped dormitories, and have little access to medication and food.

China, India, Pakistan – no invitation to visit is ever extended to Philip: they simply will not countenance meeting with a UN rapporteur for the death penalty and torture. They will however meet with other rapporteurs for ‘softer’ human rights issues. Philip made the point that while abolition is important, we mustn’t lose sight of other wins we can achieve in these geographies, e.g. Question of ‘transparency’. In China, we are told they perpetuate the death penalty because ‘public opinion wants it’. The UN’s response is ‘ does the public know how many citizens are executed, where and why?’ The answer, as we know, is that of course they don’t. The public information is based on no information. Meanwhile, due process was recently introduced in China whereby the central court needs to confirm every single death sentence. This makes it harder for regional courts to be profligate with their  executions. Also of importance, in China the range of ‘serious crimes’ warranting the death penalty, while more rangy than most other retentionist nations, is nonetheless shrinking.

This question of ‘what are the most important crimes?’ is a very sensitive one. In Nigeria for example, it is believed that sodomy destroys the very fabric of society, and is therefore the worst possible crime and must be punished by death.