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Death Penalty Information

Monday, October 30, 2006

Trinidad and Tobago: confronting the death penalty
Oct. 26

Confronting the death penalty

ON July 28, 1999, Anthony Briggs, formerly of Pinto Road, Arima, was
hanged. He had been sentenced to death for the murder of a taxi driver in
Arima sometime in August, 1992. Briggs went to his death a peaceful man,
one of his sisters reporting that he had told her 2 days before that he
had accept Jesus Christ as his personal lord and saviour, and all was well
with his soul. That sister was confident at the time, however, that her
brother was the wrong man sent to the gallows, but she had no hard
feelings against the state. So she said.
Her brother also told her that he hoped he was the last person to suffer
this fate. At the time of his death, there were 63 other persons on Death
Row. But only 13 of them were at the point where one of them could have
been called next. They were the ones who had had all their appeals
exhausted and had no constitutional or human rights motions pending.
6 years and 3 months later, murders have increased dramatically from what
they were in 1999, and more people have been sentenced to death, but the
hangman has not had a day's work since. In the face, that is, of the
strident calls from the general population for implementation of the death
"Shame and scandal in the T&T family," wailed a front page Sunday Express
headline on October 15, when the murder rate for the year hit 301. It got
there with triple murders on Friday night before, in separate incidents.
The very next weekend three more men were shot to death, this time in a
single incident at a nightclub in Arima, by a group of angry young men who
wouldn't accept the management's right to refuse their admission. In fact,
they had been inside and were thrown out because of their behaviour. They
returned only to nihilistically mash up the place.
The murder rate stood at 315 yesterday, but with the weekend approaching,
who knows what will be the Monday morning headlines! There are raging
arguments about the projections being made by the Minister of National
Security, and about the figures he is using in a series of media
advertisements, the value of which remains unclear.
Application of the death penalty has been held by many as the best
antidote against homicides, and we made headlines with it in 1999, Briggs
being the tenth person sent to the gallows that year. Remember the nine
hangings, three a day between a Thursday and a Saturday, of Dole Chadee
and company? Every public opinion poll conducted comes back firmly for
retention of the death penalty, and every government professes its undying
commitment to upholding it as the law.
The UNC was the party in power in 1999 and while it clearly remains a
question for scrutiny whether or not its application of capital punishment
was highly selective and suspect, that many pay-days for the hangman was
an achievement, for those inclined to be impressed by such numbers.
In almost five years, and with the insistence that it has not again
abandoned the death penalty, the current Government has not managed to
create a single day's work in this category. An attempt was made in June
2005, against the life of Lester Pitman, who had been sentenced to death
for the triple murders of John Cropper, his mother-in-law and
sister-in-law in July 2001. This was stopped as lawyers on Pitman's behalf
successfully argued that he had been in the process of filing an appeal
with the Privy Council.
At the end of 1999, after the 10 hangings that year, the murder rate
closed out at 93. The next year it went to 118. In 2003, the 2nd full year
of a new PNM administration, the rate rose to 229. It climbed to 260 in
2004 and shot to 386 last year.
A version of the Minister's "report on homicide statistics" appearing in
yesterday's Express has the figure for the year still at 306, however.
On the face of these figures, the arguments that hangings make a
difference can be flattened.
Whether or not hangings are useful as a deterrent to those who will commit
murder, this Government seems determined to press ahead.
It has been stymied all the way to the gallows, however, by a combination
of commitments to the Privy Council and a host of other international
human rights bodies, treaties and conventions to which we are signatory.
They are enough to cause the policy decision makers to consider again the
force of an assertion by the current Attorney General that it is extremely
difficult, if not virtually to apply the death penalty any more in
Trinidad and Tobago.
Mr Jeremie's statement, as an elaborate response to a query this week for
a status report on the death penalty, is encouraging reading for those in
favour of its abolition. For those of the contrary opinion, it is an easy
invitation to anarchy.
(Continuing next week).
(source: Trinidad Express)
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