To kill or not to kill?
The State has given notice that it intends to seek the death penalty in the case of Rushane Barnett, who is accused of murdering five people in Clarendon.

Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) Paula Llewellyn has indicated that the prosecution will be seeking the death penalty in the case of 23-year-old Rushane Barnett who is accused of the brutal killing of a young mother and her four children in Cocoa Piece, Clarendon.

The DPP is perfectly within her remit to ask for the death penalty, and will find agreement with perhaps the large majority of the Jamaican people.

In fact, since the announcement, many have expressed support for this position. The few voices that have been raised against her decision have been met with derision and shouted down. It is clear that Jamaicans have become tired of crime in the country, especially the barbaric and brazen nature of the murders that have been taking place. The diabolic slaughter of this young family is the high point for many who call for drastic actions to be taken by the State to arrest the sure descent of the country into the abyss.

In this atmosphere, rational assessment of punishment to offenders tends to get lost in the hot rhetoric that prevails. This particular crime is particularly galling and one can well understand the call for the State to dispatch the offender summarily and quickly.

He has already given a caution statement to the police that he committed the acts, but we must not lose hold of the fact that we are still a country governed by the rule of law and every accused has the right to due process of law. We subscribe to the principle that each person is assumed innocent until proven otherwise in a court of law. The confession of a person to a crime does not nullify this principle. I am no lawyer, but I am guided by the strong caution that here is a lot of slip between the cup and the lip when a full court case is engaged. That is why I believe that the confession of guilt to the police by any offender must be considered with great caution.

I have always had grave reservations about the death penalty as a punishment for crime, however horrendous.

I can well remember my high school days and my participation in debate competitions with other high schools. There are two topics that were the standard fare: capital punishment and abortion. Both topics have not lost their hold on people's consciousness because they are highly emotional subjects. They are the perennial subjects that can be depended on to evoke highly emotive reactions as we are now seeing with the raging debate about abortion in America.

My reservations about the death penalty revolve mainly around two considerations. One is whether the death penalty, however administered, is really a deterrent to hardened criminals. Even in the United Sates where, in largely Republican-led states, the death penalty is very attractive, there is no scientific basis that can be established to support the view that capital punishment is a deterrent to crime.

Despite the numbers that have been killed by the state, mass killings continue apace. The deadly rampage with the gun has not abated. Neither do serial killers feel constrained that they should not carry out their sadistic killing of victims to satisfy their warped psychological dispositions. Their only concern seems to be not to get caught. They do not seem worried as to whether they will be 'fried', injected by deadly substances, or hanged.

As far as Jamaica is concerned, I cannot recall any body of literature or investigative study which supports the argument for deterrence. I would wish to see such a study. Collectively we seem to believe that, culturally, criminals are deterred by any thought that they will be killed by the State for horrible criminal behaviour. I do not believe that the argument for deterrence has been made with any veracity. Is this the reason why we have not pursued hanging in this country, even though it is still available to the State to be used as a legal, penal remedy?

Secondly, I believe that there is a blood lust in capital punishment, a thirst for revenge that does not remedy or assuage the crime committed. Do you not do a wicked offender a favour by quickly or summarily dispatching him to his maker? Having forfeited his right (not his life) to live among the rest of us, is it not more beneficial to have such a person locked away in a maximum security facility, with prescribed hours of hard labour, where he or she can earn the basic necessities to stay alive while marinating in the memory of the crime committed, for life? In silent moments, such a person may have some thought about the evil that got him or her in that position.

As a Christian, I believe in the power of redemption, but not naively. I am convinced that there are just some people with hardened, sadistic personalities who may not change because their personalities have been so defaced that not even they themselves know who they are. They are a danger to society and must be locked away to protect it.

Such individuals can hardly be reached by human institutions of reformation. It is only God, in his infinite power and wisdom, who can transform the hearts of these people, but if the State kills them there is perhaps no possibility of even that happening.

I do not believe that any human institution should be given the power of life or death over any person. We must be about the preservation of life, even when we have to lock away those who will prey upon the innocent. To do otherwise is to descend into a barbarity that we should be eschewing.

It may satisfy our thirst for revenge or our political instincts that we are doing the best we can to cauterise crime, but, in the end, neither the State nor the victim and his or her family can be truly satisfied that killing the offender has ensured that he or she has paid the requisite dues to society. There are, in my judgement, more compelling ways than death for those dues to be paid.

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest, social commentator, and author of the books Finding Peace in the Midst of Life's Storm and Your Self-esteem Guide to a Better Life. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or stead6655@aol.com.

Raulston Nembhard

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