Capital Punishment: Values vs. Ethics?

(Editor’s note: 538Refugees occasionally hosts guest editorials. This one is from across the big pond. Based in London, Dee A. Mason is a freelance travel writer, and as a
result relishes culture and broadening her horizons through debate and
exploration. A former conservative, she now identifies as a liberal voice.)

The Mother of Chiang Kuo-ching

The dreary subject of execution has enjoyed high profile in recent weeks, largely riding on the wave of the death of Troy Davis in Georgia. There’s more on that story below, but the debate over that killing; which reached around the world via social media and the press, has brought other executions into the limelight. Many believed Davis to be innocent, and many more believed the case against him was flawed, but still the state of Georgia executed him for a crime he insisted he did not commit.

Most of the debate around that case was to question the judicial process, rather than being pro- or anti- capital punishment. Eyewitness testimonies are the cause of a great deal of miscarriages of justice because they’re inherently unreliable and are (still) swayed by racial issues. Uncertainty has cast a huge cloud of doubt over the subject of execution, with other states leading the way in identifying the inherent fallibility of eyewitness evidence.

But on the other side of the world, the Chinese are constantly killing their own people at a staggering rate; likely several a day. Iran executes far less; perhaps fewer than one a day. North Korea (whose statistics are unverifiable) are below that, while Yemen executes just one person a week.

Then comes the USA, which looks slightly incongruous next to that list of not-quite democracies with dodgy judiciaries and histories of tyrannical dictatorships. The USA executed 46 people in the year 2010, putting it well above Saudi Arabia and Libya and Syria. This statistic is drawn on quite frequently by anti-death penalty opponents in the United States.  This puts the US in the same category of countries that engage in barbaric practices that most countries have rejected. This argument along with placards displaying slogans and pastors delivering moving services about America draw an even further line between “us” (the very civilised West) and “them” (the untamed savages).

That’s an incredibly jingoistic approach to the matter of execution, borne out by the comparative news coverage. The upcoming execution in Florida of a Cuban national who has been on death row for 33 years is probably going to play alongside the proposed killing of a Christian pastor in Iran who defected from Islam to the Church of Iran.

Manuel Valle

Manuel Valle killed a policewoman in Florida in 1978 [much as Troy Davis was accused in 1989]. The public response to this case has been textbook: Why has he been on death row for 33 years? Why did his legal team only get 24 days to prepare their defence? Why was he refused clemency?

Meanwhile, a Taiwan military tribunal announced today that an Air Force private was wrongfully executed in 1997. Private Chiang Kuo-ching had been convicted of the rape and murder of a five-year-old girl. He was 23 when he died. The tribunal heard how he had been “locked in” as the main suspect, after failing a lie detector test. A confession had been obtained via “improper” methods, and this was used to shore up the very weak forensic and physical evidence.

The announcement comes after more than a decade of struggle, led by the parents of the executed man, to reopen the case and investigate further. The tribunal began in May 2010. This not guilty verdict for Private Chiang follows two other reversals of life sentences: one for murder, the other for multiple rape. These convictions had been convicted on the basis of flawed eyewitness reports and confessions made under duress, even though evidence did not support the outcome.

Which brings us back onto the subject of Troy Davis, whose execution was based largely on eyewitness reports. The very nature of eyewitness reports is that they are entirely subjective and are the most inaccurate evidence in a case. Confessions are made incorrectly (many of the death row inmates in Taiwan say their confessions were the result of torture – in these cases, the evidence doesn’t necessarily corroborate with the cases put forward by the prosecution) and consequently, inaccurately.

Yet the media is not aghast and self-righteous when confronted with executions taking place abroad. Instead, it maintains a sort of disparaging sneer which detracts from the gravity of a man being solemnly executed by his own government. As with any judicial sentence, the death penalty can be given wrongly – something which seems self-evident to those of us in a country with a more rigorous police system and a less trigger-happy judiciary. But the fact that this punishment is given out around the world – and our lack of reaction to it happening in each country respectively – betray a very warped image of the sanctity of life, and something disturbing lodged deep inside our social psyche.

(Addendum: for a deeper, disturbing look into our social psyche, see the articles on the Florida Legislator who is ‘tired of being humane’ below)


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3 Responses to Capital Punishment: Values vs. Ethics?

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