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Marc My Words: The Death Penalty

21 April 2005

The Death Penalty, A Fact Of Life For Some.

This week, 'Marc My Words' has been spurred by two crime stories - the capture of the Aussie alleged drug smugglers and the case of murderer Gresham Marsh. (I advocated against Gresham being granted parole when I spoke with the family of his victims and his own family. I believe that he deserves to remain in prison until he draws his last breath . yes, I do take it personally).

Every country has its own way of dealing with its crime problems - some of course don't deal. I was interested to read the allegations that four Australians have been caught in Bali with heroin strapped to their bodies. All together there were nine people involved, each having two kgs of the drug on them. These individuals could have made millions - had they succeeded - but now await charges to be laid. They could be up for the death sentence if found guilty.

Five of the alleged would-be drug smugglers were under surveillance and nabbed as they tried to board a flight to Sydney. No doubt if they are charged, found guilty, and sentenced to die by the bullet there will be a whole coterie of angry Australian human rights activists condemning the penalty as barbarous. It will be conveniently overlooked that Indonesian law has been violated, and so the Indonesian criminal justice system will be administered in the jurisdiction of a crime committed on their turf. It is not for any other nation to cry foul.

Now don't get me wrong - I do not favour the death penalty although I understand and sympathise with the sentiments driving it. I just do not think the death penalty works, but not because of the usual arguments. While it can be reasonably debated that a loss of just one innocent person justifies scrapping the death penalty, this perspective is easily countered. What if the death penalty sentence was applied to heinous crimes where guilt is proved beyond all doubt, not as beyond reasonable doubt as at present?

Though we could come up with a system along those lines I would still be counted amongst the 'nays'. Why? Not because I have some misguided notion about the sanctity of all life, even that of a rapist or murderer or sanctimonious moralising paedophile. I don't believe in the death penalty because it doesn't work; - it doesn't deter crime but rather, has been shown to make some crimes more lethal. For the criminal, being dispatched from their mortal coil certainly is a deterrent. Dead crims do not commit crimes other than in the haunted nightmares of their victims. Forensic research has shown that the death penalty can act to increase the thrill of crime in the same way as a high stakes poker hand adds thrill for the gambler. For some offenders there is an added inducement to leave no witnesses, while for others there is a heightened 'life-on-line' adrenalin/serontonin kick to the crime.

So why - proponents will argue - do those countries with the death penalty (except in the US where the number of misapplications of the penalty with the sober reality that, owing to the never-ending appeals process, the death penalty costs more to administer than life imprisonment) seem so successful at fighting crime? "Just look at Singapore"... they say.

I suggest the crucial question lies not in the death penalty itself but with a criminal justice system that diminishes the opportunities to get away with crime; and escape its penalties; the police are properly resourced, the court system speedy, and the punishment fits the crime. Contrast that with our system where we have police who are understaffed, underfunded and under appreciated. (Pornographic images on PCs aside, we should give members of the Police the same benefit of doubt that any accused member of the public receives.) We have a 30,000 backlog of cases still waiting to get to court and we hand out sentences that are downright stupid. Concurrent sentencing? Parole after only one third of the sentence? Prisoners' rights that result in compensaton claims while their victims are left to fend for themselves? Government complicity in clean slate legislation that allows offenders to lie about their criminal past?

And now we have double murderer, Gresham Marsh. He apparently wants to sue his family and the Sensible Sentencing Trust. He has laid an assault complaint with the police. And he wants to change his name. I imagine he is hopeful of a favourable result from a Parole Board hearing coming up in September.

Let's not forget why Gresham is in prison; in 1994 he and Leith Ray murdered an elderly Waikato couple, Hohn and Josie Harrison. Even though I am against the death penalty, there is a part of me that wishes he had committed the crime in Indonesia. Because then, it would not be freedom he'd be facing, but the kind of justice most of us think he deserves.

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