“If we are to abolish the death penalty, I should like to see the first step taken by my friends the murderers,” said 19th Century French critic, journalist and novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr.
By Conway Tutani
One of the most complex moral issues — death sentence — is on the table again with Harare lawyer Tendai Biti representing 15 death row inmates in a case in which they want the Constitutional Court (ConCourt) to commute their sentences to life imprisonment, citing, among other issues, that capital punishment is not only unconstitutional, but cruel.
This week, Biti also won a landmark case in which the ConCourt ruled that — with immediate effect — no child under the age of 18 should enter a valid marriage.
Traditional leaders have also come out guns blazing against the death penalty on the grounds that “capital punishment (is) not cultural, but a relic of the colonial era”. Yes, culture is not transient — here today, gone tomorrow — but is it that static and unchanging? And are we not using “colonial relics” like Roman-Dutch Law, police, judges and prisons to deal with crime? So, it’s not really about “colonial relics”, but efficacy, effectiveness, usefulness. Traditional remedies as they were constituted cannot work in the fast-paced, modern-day Zimbabwe. During those long-gone days, communities were small and sparse. Today the demographics have totally changed, communities are much bigger and complex. So new rules and methods have to apply.
Said Chief Bepura: “. . . people compensated the victim’s family with cattle and a wife to appease the grieving family.” Well, it’s unacceptable in this day and age to treat females — and invariably young girls — as commodities in a transaction. The perpetrator himself must be made to solely pay for his crimes, not to throw young girls into the deal as if women are mere objects. Thankfully, the ConCourt did away with this traditional relic when Biti skilfully and incisively argued against the obnoxious forced child marriages. Biti is back in his element: Law, not politics. I digress.
The death sentence, if carried out, is irreversible. So are the murders committed by those sentenced to death not reversible — their victims’ lives are gone forever. Nothing can bring them back. So, where do we draw the line in the interests of serving justice for both sides?
On the one hand, we have abolitionists who are totally against the death sentence under any circumstances, who are of the view that execution is tantamount to legalised murder. No matter how wicked and vicious the crime, no matter how vile and degenerate the criminal, these death penalty opponents are adamant that nobody can ever deserve to die — even if that person burned children alive.
Ironically, when it comes to another highly complex moral issue — that of abortion — those totally against the death sentence on the grounds that it is equally murder, are pro-choice. They say it is every woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, itself an act of taking away innocent life. But when it comes to murderers, they are pro-life; they say lives that have deliberately taken other innocent lives must not be terminated under any circumstances. I find this illogical, unconscionable and outrageous.
There are opportunistic low-lives among us who have no guilt over doing rotten or heinous things to other people. It’s all in a day’s work for them to hurt the innocent and defenceless. We are talking about people who are guilty as sin. Let’s not go too far with this “rights thing”. After all, the average person is not a murderer. It’s the tiniest minority who kill gratuitously.
Should we take up any and all causes? Let’s not be voguish or politically correct about the death penalty.
Yes, it is the ultimate punishment, but then it should be applied for the most hideous crimes. It’s not like death row inmates are being executed every day. When people go beyond the pale — that is, throw away all the rules and wilfully and totally disregard all institutions of society that are synonymous with civilisation itself — then they fully deserve the ultimate punishment. If you deliberately choose to be outside of civilisation, then you should have no expectation at all to be treated in a civilised manner.
Let’s not be like incurable do-gooders who think they are helping society by championing oppressed minority groups’ rights, when in fact they are ruining society and endangering the innocent.
Let’s not be nice about everything. Let’s avoid misplaced pity. Do-gooder methods do not always create the positive outcomes intended; the complete, tragic opposite can occur. One such do-gooder in the United States befriended a serving prisoner and accommodated him in his own home after his release. Guess what? The convict went on to rob and kill him.
A do-gooder is an earnest, but often naïve person (typically educated) who wants reform through philanthropic or egalitarian means —such as prison welfare. Do-gooders always mean well, but may misinterpret opposing preferences — like not supporting a blanket ban of the death penalty — to be “Zanuist”, cold, cruel or intolerant.
As American Professor Robert Flecker rightly observed, we should guard against the prevailing academic assumptions about the evils of capital punishment. At Harvard Law School, where he won the prize for the best graduating thesis, Blecker was one of only two students to publicly defend the death penalty. He went on to prosecute corrupt lawyers, police, and judges and saw at close range how the rich and powerful were given breaks denied to poor and powerless offenders.
So there is no contradiction in supporting the death penalty for deserving cases and advocating prison reform. The two should not be mixed — they are separate.
Like criticising the despotic and corrupt Zanu PF regime should not stop us from pointing out the same tendencies in the private sector and elsewhere.
Those few among us who go all out to distinguish themselves as most sadistic murderers — the worst of the worst — certainly deserve to be hanged.
●Conway Nkumbuzo Tutani is a Harare-based columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org