A recent editorial in this newspaper under the heading “10 reasons to oppose the death penalty” listed the names of the 10 Canadians who have been cleared of murder convictions because of miscarriages of justice or are still trying to clear their names. Some, possibly all, of them would have been executed by now if the Canadian government hadn’t outlawed the death penalty in 1976, and re-affirmed that position in 1987 despite polls that showed most Canadians favoured capital punishment.The Sun Times editorial elicited a couple of letters to the editor that complained it ignored the other side of the issue, specifically the 58 people killed by 37 repeat homicide offenders freed from jail on parole or under supervision from 1975 to 1999.
“Say what you want about the death penalty, but it does reduce to zero the number of repeat offenders,” one letter said.
The idea that capital punishment is justifiable on that basis, despite the obvious risk of executing innocent people, is surprisingly persistent given the extent to which Canadians have regularly heard in the past 25 years about serious miscarriages of justice in homicide cases. Some go back to the days when, technically at least, people convicted of murder could still be executed; Donald Marshall and David Milgaard, for example. If Canada were Texas or another of the 38 states in the U.S. that still have the death penalty those two innocent men would almost certainly be dead.
I’m reminded of an opportunity I had in the mid-1990s to interview Preston Manning along with the Sun Times’ editor at the time and another reporter. A federal election was approaching and the Manning-led Reform party was in favour of more direct democracy, in the form of national referendums on what it regarded as major national issues, including capital punishment. Manning left no doubt where he stood on capital punishment when I asked if he thought reinstating the death penalty was worth the risk of executing innocent people, like Marshal. Yes, if it meant no one would ever again be murdered by repeat offenders, he said.
It happens. There’s no question of that. The statistics cited above and by the Sun Times letter-to-the-editor writer are accurate. They’re contained in a report prepared by Canada’s National Parole Board that can be found on its website. The report is headed “Repeat Homicide offences committed by offenders under community supervision.” It says 37 people convicted of either murder or manslaughter killed again after being released from custody between 1975 and 1999, some more than once, hence the 58 victims. They were either on board-approved parole or released on conditional supervision after serving two-thirds of their sentence (statutory release). However, unlike people convicted of manslaughter which is also considered a “homicide offence,” murderers are not eligible for statutory release. They can only be released on day or full parole by a decision of the parole board. In fairness to the issue at hand those numbers should be kept in context. Overall, during the 24-year period covered by the report 11,783 homicide offenders were let out of jail on parole or supervision. The 37 repeat offenders were .3 percent of the total. In other words 99.7 percent of the people convicted of homicide did not re-offend while on parole or supervision after being let out of jail. That’s not a fact that ever garners headlines. For any other government agency, or field of human endeavour for that matter, it would have to be regarded as a pretty good success rate. But this is different. We’re talking life and death here, the lives and deaths of innocent people, and how in the best of all possible worlds it should be avoided, one way or another.
That’s the capital punishment conundrum, the reason why there are so clearly two sides to the issue: On the one hand there are those few repeat offenders who somehow manage to slip through the parole board cracks despite its best efforts and kill again. Like the courts, the police, and all things human, the parole board is imperfect. On the other hand the death penalty inevitably means innocent people will be executed, for the same reason.
What to do? That is the question.
Above all it’s a question – like whether or not to go to war – that calls for the deepest possible reflection and thought on moral, spiritual and rational levels.
For me it starts with the idea, or rather the belief, that life is precious and sacred, so sacred that everyone is entitled to a second chance to redeem and restore their lives, just as everyone is entitled to be born. If that sounds like I’m equating murders and unborn children, then so be it. Whatever we become, whatever the vicissitudes of life and our own shortcomings make of us, there is still a child deep inside who just wants to be born.
What amazes me is how so often the same people who oppose abortion also favour the death penalty, as if the concept of forgiveness and redemption is reserved only for the after-life. It’s not. It’s a living, breathing, flesh-and-blood, divinely inspired idea aimed at bringing hope to people in despair so they can go on living in the here-and-now.
Are there incorrigibles, people who for whatever reason are twisted beyond hope of redemption and, given the chance, will kill again and again? Sadly, tragically, for them and us, no doubt there are. Society has an obligation to protect itself from such people. So, by all means, let’s try to find a way to make sure we’re not letting out of jail. Let them struggle and suffer with their consciences, or the lack, in secure custody for the rest of their natural lives, and beyond.
But we imperfect human beings, individually or as a society, have no right to take away the divine gift of forgiveness and redemption, and the promise of new life, from anyone capable of accepting it, even if they are guilty of murder and especially if they’ve been wrongfully convicted.
Besides, on a more mundane, practical level, capital punishment doesn’t work. Proponents of the death penalty will always maintain it’s a deterrent. It is not. The murder rate in Canada declined every year after the death penalty was removed from the Canadian Criminal Code. Every year except one, with that one being 2004, when the homicide rate rose to 1.9 per 100,000 people. A total of 622 people were victims of homicide in that last year that statistics are available, 73 more than 2003. That’s a considerable increase, but it’s still five percent lower than the 1994 Canadian homicide rate. In comparison the murder rate in the U.S. was three times as high in 2003, according to American government statistics.
Currently there are 3,415 people on “death row” in the U.S. Nine hundred and eighty-five people have been executed in the U.S. since 1976. Texas is way ahead of other states, with 350 executions in that time period, followed by Virginia with 94. So far this year Texas has already executed 13 people. Its murder rate is 6.4 victims per 100,000.
Generally, the southern U.S. states have the highest murder of any region of the country, and the highest execution rate.
I rest my case.
Originally published in The Sun Times in 2015.