Flawed argument on YPAP website on death penalty

Kirsten Han

I have just read an article on the death penalty by Mr Michael Rebaczonok-Padulo on the Young PAP website, entitled ‘WHAT ABOUT HUMAN RIGHTS FOR VICTIMS?‘ I suggest you read it; it is a piece that provokes a very strong response from me. Which is why I would now like to take this blog entry to write my rebuttals to his argument. I will be quoting excerpts of his piece (underlined emphasis mine), followed by my response.

While it is good and even noble that there are persons and groups concerned with the ongoing struggle for the full application of human rights, I find it shocking that the human rights of the victims of heinous crimes for which criminals are executed are not always given as much media attention.

This is the main thrust of Rebaczonok-Padulo’s piece: that the rights of the victims are neglected, while anti-death penalty advocates are spending precious time and resources championing the cause of the perpetrators. However, this is not simply skewed or misleading; it is downright untrue.

Unlike what the writer would like you to believe, being anti-death penalty and caring for the victims are not mutually exclusive. One can do both, which is why many – if not all – anti-death penalty campaigners support rehabilitation and counseling programs for both victims AND inmates. We believe that everyone should have the care and attention that they need, and that no one is completely irredeemable. By calling for the abolishment of the death penalty, we are NOT neglecting the victims.

This leads me to my second point about the Rebaczonok-Padulo’s thesis. He seems to be suggesting that if we abolish the death penalty, we are somehow depriving the victims of their human rights. In other words, revenge killing is a human right.

My question to him would be this: since when was killing a human being the RIGHT of another? How would the execution of one person be fitting with the human rights of another? Has the writer not heard of “two wrongs don’t make a right”?

Justice is not based upon “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth”. This is why we don’t sexually violate rapists, or cut slashers, etc. We recognise that there are some acts that are cruel and barbaric, and have no place in justice. We draw the line and refuse to commit the cruel acts that might have been committed by the criminals before us, because we refuse to sink to their level of violence. So why would we be willing to sink to a murderer’s level and endorse the death penalty, which is nothing more than state-sanctioned murder?

Although the name of the website sounds biased (http://www.prodeathpenalty.com), the information found there is incredibly detailed and factual…

“Detailed” and “factual” does not mean that the website cannot still be biased. And it is precisely as biased as the name ‘Pro-Death Penalty’ sounds. At the end of the day, Pro-Death Penalty.com is trying to convince people that the death penalty is good and right, and should be kept. It is as subjective as the website Anti-Death Penalty.org (http://www.antideathpenalty.org/). It is up for the individual to read these two sites and acquaint themselves with the facts, and make up their own minds.

Sifting through all the information so painstakingly gathered was, for me, akin to watching episode after episode of the ‘Crime Investigation’ series on Cable TV, as I was shocked into disbelief at the extent to which human beings can become so utterly depraved and bestial.

I am glad that the writer feels horror at the “depraved and bestial” acts of certain human beings. That response is only natural. But if the writer can feel such abhorrence of violence and murder, why then is he advocating execution? If he is shocked and repulsed by violent crimes, why is he all right with lethal injections, long drops, firing squads, electrocution and gas chambers (for these are all methods of state execution found around the world)?

I submit that once a person commits the most supreme act of violence against another of his fellow human beings in the form of murder, or accomplice to murder, then he himself ipso facto forfeits his own human rights at the moment in which he commits the crime. This of course assumes that he is not doing so in self-defence, or to defend loved ones or other innocents from wanton attacks by criminals, or to defend his country in times of war. This also assumes, of course, that there is positive forensic evidence and/or credible eyewitness testimony that proves conclusively that he is the perpetrator of the crime in question.

These assumptions are logical, of course, but in real life it can be incredibly difficult, perhaps even impossible, to be sure of anything 100%. This is why we see people being exonerated after being sentenced to death row, or worse, executed. This is why, no matter how hard we try, there are still miscarriages of justice and wrongful convictions. This is bad enough with prison sentences, but with the death penalty it is the height of injustice. The irreversible nature of the death penalty requires the justice system to be absolutely infallible. However, like any other institution controlled and run by Man, there is always the possibility of mistakes and errors of judgement. They might not be intentional, but with death penalty cases that doesn’t make the consequences any less acceptable.

When I read the book No Choirboy: Murder, Violence and Teenagers on Death Row, I realised that inmates could land on death row because of a myriad of issues. Despite what we’d like to believe, real life is not like CSI, or Bones, or any of those homicide investigation TV dramas where they always have iron-clad proof and confessions with absolutely no sliver of a doubt about who the perpetrator is. People could land on death row because their accomplices cut deals or got plea bargains and testified against them. People could land on death row because of inadequate legal representation. People could land on death row because of a combination of seriously unfortunate circumstances. Even if you had the most upright cops, most diligent lawyers and most honest judges there would still be the possibility of errors.

So how could we just automatically strip a person of his human rights the moment we think he has committed a crime? How could we proclaim that a person does not deserve his/her human rights? How does that make us better people than they are?

And let’s go one further: what about the family of the offender? Do they, too, have to be punished just for being related to the offender?

So while some argue that Van Nguyen was not a murderer and, moreover, that he seemed to have fully repented while incarcerated, the fact remains that had he succeeded in his premeditated plan to sell the drugs, he would have been at least indirectly responsible for the possible destruction of the lives of those to whom the heroin would have been sold. That certainly ranks high on the list of very serious crimes, and one can hardly argue that it was carried out in the ‘heat of passion’.

This argument about the death penalty for drug trafficking simply does not stand. What Rebaczonok-Padulo seems to be saying is that Van Nguyen deserved the death penalty because of the potential effects of the drugs he was carrying, not the actual damage done (which, since the drugs were confiscated at his arrest, was nil). If we follow this logic, we should also start handing out the death penalty for drunk driving, attempted murder, aggravated assault, domestic abuse, armed robbery, rioting etc. After all, any of those crimes have the potential of destroying lives.

It is not justice to mete out punishment – especially when the punishment is as cruel, archaic and irreversible as DEATH – on the grounds of potential harm. This is why Rebaczonok-Padulo’s argument here is, in a word, flawed.

Subsequently, however, the drug trade was sharply curtailed and crime dropped dramatically, thanks in part to capital punishment being meted out for such crimes, in his [Dr Lim Lee Ching] own view and that of his family. He logically associates the very strict laws governing crime and punishment with safe neighbourhoods, and is therefore in favour of retaining the death penalty, as are his family members.

This anecdote might very well be true in relation to the views and experience of the writer’s friend Dr Lim. However, it is insufficient as evidence of the effectiveness of the death penalty in curbing crime. When it comes to an issue as absolute, controversial and crucial as the death penalty, the burden of proof is heavy. Here Rebaczonok-Padulo does not provide any concrete evidence that the death penalty is the direct cause of reduction of crime – perhaps because there is no such evidence.

The argument that the death penalty is the cause of crime reduction also neglects other important factors such as police competence, rehabilitation of offenders and civic education. These are crucial factors in the fight against crime that should not be so easily pushed aside or forgotten in favour of making general and simplistic assumptions about the death penalty.

Also, it is worth emphasising that having no death penalty does NOT mean we have no punishment. Would long prison sentences/life imprisonment not serve as deterrents?

Obviously administration of the death penalty is something never to be taken lightly in any case, which is precisely why it is meted out so rarely.

If the death penalty is really meted out so rarely, why is it that Amnesty International’s estimates have put Singapore at the top of the list of executions per capita in the world?

However, if one is not planning to commit murder (or in the case of Singapore, traffic in illegal drugs above certain stipulated quantities), then one has nothing to worry about.

This too, is not completely accurate. If you take a look at the presumption clauses of the Misuse of Drugs Act, you will realise that when it comes to drug trafficking charges, the burden of proof ends up on the shoulders of the defendant. This means that instead of the usual “innocent until proven guilty”, we’re looking at a “guilty until proven innocent” scenario. How does one prove one’s innocence in such a situation, with all the presumptions heaped upon one’s head?

Tochi could not understand what was happening, and cried all the way to the gallows.

On top of these presumption clauses, drug trafficking over the stipulated quantities comes with the MANDATORY death penalty. This means that the judge has no discretion in considering mitigating circumstances and handing out sentences. Once you’re found guilty – remember presumption clauses! – you WILL be sentenced to death. Goodbye.

Just look at the case of Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi, a young man from Nigeria who came to Singapore with the hopes of being a footballer. Although his trial judge admitted that “there was no direct evidence that he knew the capsules contained diamorphine”, he was executed anyway.

So it’s not true that one has no need to worry about the death penalty in Singapore if one does not commit murder or traffic drugs. All it takes is for someone to slip something into your bag/pocket/suitcase while you’re on holiday; 15g of heroin ain’t exactly a big package.

Fortunately, an Internet search reveals that there are indeed such support groups…

Rebaczonok-Padulo concludes his article with a list of 3 victims’ support groups in America, praising them for having “got their priorities right”. By listing these groups (LOLAMFamilies of Murder Victims and Survivors of Homicide) in the context of his article, he seems to be suggesting that if we advocate abolishment of the death penalty, we are somehow letting these people down, disrespecting and neglecting their human rights. Seeing these links in his article, an average reader would have the impression that these groups are pro-death penalty.

However, if you actually look at the website, none of them are actually advocating the death penalty. In fact, Loved Ones Left After Murder (LOLAM) even states that the family’s “religious convictions will not allow them to advocate capital punishment”. These groups are not about baying for blood, they are about supporting the people left behind, and lobbying the government for better crime prevention and legislation.

In fact, there are a number of groups out there that both support the victims as well as campaign against the death penalty. Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) is one such example. Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) is another. In fact, you can find a whole list of literature, reports and organisations from victims against the death penalty here. The stories from these organisations are extraordinary tales of compassion, mercy and humanity.

This clearly proves that being anti-death penalty and caring for victims are not mutually exclusive standpoints. In fact, the above organisations have proven that one could even be a victim and still be anti-death penalty.

In summary, I find Rebaczonok-Padulo’s assumption that anti-death penalty advocates neglect the plight of the victims to be false. Contrary to his beliefs, one can support and sympathise with the victims while calling for the abolishment of capital punishment. Also contrary to his assertions, the abolishment of the death penalty is not an infringement of the human rights of victims. Two wrongs do not make a right. Death does not make things better; it only inflicts pain on yet another family.

I thank Mr Rebaczonok-Padulo for joining in the death penalty discussion and weighing in with his views on the YPAP website. I respect his right to his own view and standpoint, and would therefore ask him to extend the same courtesy to me and my fellow anti-death penalty campaigners, and thank him to not make such snap judgements or hasty generalisations about our priorities.