THE year 2018 was a year of many firsts when it came to the death penalty in the Caribbean.
For the first time since Amnesty International began its monitoring in 1979, no new death sentences were known to have been imposed by courts in Trinidad and Tobago, leaving Guyana and the US as the only countries that imposed such punishment in the Americas.
While hanging to death is still a punishment under the laws of all English-speaking Caribbean countries, for the first time, the number of Caribbean countries whose death rows sat empty has risen to nine, after St Kitts and Nevis commuted its last known death sentence.
For the first time, in December, the Americas passed a decade without any executions outside the US. And in the same month, for the first time, a country from the English-speaking Caribbean—Dominica—supported and co-sponsored a UN call for a global moratorium on executions, receiving record-high support from 121 out of 193 UN member states, with 32 abstaining at the vote.
These were in addition to some other positive news at the global level. Excluding the thousands of executions believed to have been carried out in secretive China, the total number of executions that Amnesty International recorded was the lowest it has been in at least a decade, after Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia—all countries that have historically accounted for many of the world’s executions—reported significant drops in their yearly totals. While some countries including the US, Japan, South Sudan and Vietnam bucked this trend by increasing executions, overall state killings were down by over 30 per cent.
The global figures on the use of the death penalty from last year tell a clear story: it is just a matter of time before the death penalty is consigned to the history books. In the Caribbean, the number of people on death row dropped by over 70 per cent in the past 25 years, as a result of judicial standards set by regional and international bodies as well as progressive decline in the resort to the death penalty as a sentencing option. With 80 people left on death row in just five countries, there is no doubt that the death penalty is on its way out in this region, too.
The decline in the death penalty, in a region with constantly high murder rates, comes at a time when it is abundantly clear that it does not work as a deterrent. Studies have consistently shown that the death penalty has not had a unique deterrent effect and has in many ways been a false “solution’’ to crime rates in the Caribbean. In St Kitts and Nevis, the number of murders increased from 23 to 27 in the year following the execution of Charles Elroy Laplace in December 2008.
A study carried out in Trinidad and Tobago also found that over a span of 50 years neither imprisonment nor death sentences nor executions had any significant relationship to homicides.
Experts have pointed out that certainty of punishment has a greater deterrent effect than its severity, and the fact that just 83 out of 517 murders were classified as “detected’’ by the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service in 2018 provides a damning commentary on a criminal justice system that has failed to get a grip on crime. The figures speak volumes about failed crime investigations; of ready-available weapons, abandoned communities and broken trust in the state institutions; of the backlog of cases before courts and of overworked officials—just to name a few concerns that are frequently shared. While this cruel and inhumane punishment is put behind us, we must look for long-term solutions that can effectively deliver the justice crime victims deserve.
More and more governments around the world are coming to the realisation that the death penalty and its proponents have failed us in their promise of safety. Last year, Burkina Faso removed the death penalty from its Penal Code; the death penalty was declared unconstitutional in the US state of Washington; and Gambia and Malaysia declared moratoriums on executions. Just a few weeks ago, the governor of California, Gavin Newsom, followed suit.
In explaining his decision, Newsom noted that: “Our death penalty system has been—by any measure—a failure. It has provided no public safety benefit or value as a deterrent. It has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars. But most of all, the death penalty is absolute, irreversible and irreparable in the event of a human error.”
It now is time for the Caribbean to pull down the curtain on the death penalty and oversee the long-overdue changes in the criminal justice systems across the region to improve safety in the region and deliver justice for all.
• Chiara Sangiorgio is an adviser
on the Death Penalty at Amnesty