A Call to Remove the Death Penalty in Dominica (By Thomson Fontaine)
In the recent past, Dominica has seen an alarming acceleration in the murder rate. During 2008, eight murders were reported up from 3 in 2007, and so far in 2009, 3 Dominicans have been brutally murdered.
In 2008, 23 people were murdered in St. Kitts (Population 46 000); 45 persons were murdered in St. Lucia and over a thousand each in Trinidad and Jamaica.
While the number of people murdered in Dominica are small compared to the rest of the region, the trend is no less alarming.
If any of the people held in connection with the recent murders are found guilty by a jury of their peers, they will in all likelihood be sentenced by a judge to ‘be hung by the neck until well and truly dead’. The past three murder trials held in Dominica have resulted in the accused all going free.
The escalating violence in Dominica appears to have led to many calls for hanging to be carried out, because while it remains on the books, the last person to be executed was in 1983. Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit went on record to categorically state that under no circumstances would the death penalty be removed from the laws of Dominica.
He has been supported by many in government and has even gained the support of popular evangelical preacher Pastor Bernard Joseph who was quoted as saying "I believe Dominica will not be doing something that is socially just by removing capital punishment from the books."
Father Franklyn Cuffy in keeping with a long time tradition of the catholic church has been very vocal in calling for abolishing of the death penalty. Also calling for restraint is historian Lennox Honychurch whose own father was brutally murdered in 1982. Their voices however appears to be drowned out by the growing drum beat of those within the society who are calling for the death sentence to be carried out.
The specter of capital punishment, particularly carried out by hanging, as is the case in Dominica, hangs (no pun intended) over the country like a dark, foreboding relic of our history.
Not too long ago, slaves and sons and daughters of slaves were strung up in the old market place in the middle of Roseau to satisfy the morbid curiosity of passersby. Even more chilling was the fact that many of the hangings were on account of petty or some race related crime.
While we’ve shed most of the relics of this dark period of our history, we have held on to death by hanging as a way of purging society of murderers and persons convicted for treason. In some cases we are even under the mistaken belief that this will serve as a deterrent for would be murderers. Indeed, when persons were hanged during the slave era, they were kept on display to warn would be participants, not to for instance steal from the master.
The last Dominican to suffer such an ignominious fate was 35 year old former commander of the Dominica Defense Force Frederick Newton who was hanged at the Stock Farm Prison on August 8, 1986 for his role in the attempted overthrow of the Eugenia Charles government.
In the months and weeks leading to his demise, Newton was reported to have fasted and generally avoided eating as a means of protesting his fate. Witnesses reported that his largely emaciated frame kicked and jerked for several agonizing minutes before mercifully succumbing to death. His reduced body weight worked to prolong his agony and suffering.
Interestingly, six of his fellow coconspirators who were also sentenced to death had their sentences remitted to life in prison. Almost 30 years later all the men are leading productive lives back in society.
Amnesty International has labeled the death penalty as “cruel and unusual punishment”. For years, it has been abolished in Europe and several other countries with Dominica sharing the dubious record with Iraq, the US and a minority of countries that still carry out the death penalty.
In fact, only 68 countries retain the death penalty, with eleven of these been Caribbean countries. Since 1990, 48 countries have abolished the death penalty. Overall 137 countries have abolished the death penalty in fact or in law.
Capital punishment as a deterrent has been a dismal failure. Scientific studies have consistently found no convincing evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than other punishments. The most recent survey of research findings on the relation between the death penalty and homicide rates, conducted for the United Nations in 1988 and updated in 1996 and 2002, concluded that "research has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment."
The death penalty remains on the books in Trinidad and Jamaica whose murder rates far exceeds even the most violent cities in the United States. Violence continues in St. Kitts where on 19 December 2008, the authorities executed Charles Elroy Laplace, who had been on death row for four years for the murder of his wife.
Notwithstanding the chorus of contrary voices, I think it’s time for Dominica to revisit the issue of the death penalty and consider abolishing this form of punishment as a means of freeing our country from one of its last vestiges of a brutal and merciless society. In so doing we can take our rightful place alongside the more progressive and enlightened countries in the world.