Erenlai - Focus: Death penalty in the 21st century
Focus: Death penalty in the 21st century

Focus: Death penalty in the 21st century

This month, we explore issues related to death penalty. Here in Taiwan, the spotlight has shifted back to this subject with the recent restoration of executions by the government after a 4-year break. In light of this, we have prepared a series of articles and interviews that explore death penalty in the 21st century. As always, we welcome your comments on the articles. Death penalty is an important topic that should be actively debated.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The new frontier in abolishing the death penalty

In the second half of the 20th century, there were many changes in death penalty policy worldwide. After the end of World War II and its atrocities, an abolitionist movement started in Western Europe. The first countries to abolish were Italy, Austria and Germany. They were later followed by Great Britain, Spain and France. After the last major power in Western Europe had abolished the death penalty, in 1981, the issue shifted from a question of criminal justice to a question of human rights and limits on government.

Since then, the number, scope and implementation strategies of international human rights treaties and conventions has increased. Among those treaties and conventions lies the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which prohibits the use of capital punishment, and the UN moratorium on death penalty, a nonbinding resolution reached in 2007 which calls for a general suspension of the death penalty. In addition to these resolutions, INGOs such as Amnesty International have been launching worldwide campaigns to abolish capital punishment.

In 2009, 95 countries had abolished the death penalty, while only 18 of the 58 retentionist countries are known to have carried out executions in the same year. However, despite a decline in Asia’s overall number of executions, the continent still accounted for 90 percent of the world’s execution in 2009, the majority having been carried out in China, although Bangladesh, Japan, North Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam also carried out executions.

Nevertheless, there are many reasons to believe that Asia is the new frontier in the movement to abolish the death penalty. First, many countries are already abolitionist or de facto abolitionist. In 1989, Cambodia abolished death penalty, and then Macao, Hong Kong and more recently the Philippines followed suit, while South Korea has not carried out an execution since December 1997. Second, there is ambivalence in other Asian countries that still practice death penalty, as is the case in Taiwan.

In 1987 the Republic of China (Taiwan) emerged from 40 years of an oppressive regime under martial law, where people could be punished by death, secretly and on a whim. As Chiang Ching-Kuo opened up the country economically and began the democratisation process, Taiwan's institutions were still partly in the hands of the system which had allowed for the White Terror and other miscarriages of social justice. A key component of the democratisation process is transitional justice. The term refers to a complete set of policies in order to transform a society and overcome its past of human rights abuses, authoritarianism and societal traumas to a peaceful and more certain future. For some, this 'transition' is still in progress today.

After some controversial cases during the 1990s such as the Hsichih trio case, the number of executions carried out in Taiwan decreased and a change of attitude towards the death penalty began to emerge. Between 2006 and 2009, no executions were carried out, and Taiwan seemed to be moving gradually toward abolition…

In March 2010, a controversy emerged over the death penalty issue when former Minister of Justice Wang Ching-feng (王清峰) announced her position in favour of abolishing the death penalty adding that she would not step down over the row about enforcing death penalty. Her announcement led to public protests led by victims’ relatives, such as Pai Ping-Ping, a media personality whose daughter was kidnapped and murdered in 1997. On March 11th, Wang Ching-feng resigned after the Presidential Office stated that the death penalties handed down must be carried out and that any suspension of executions must follow the law.

On April 30th 2010, executions in Taiwan were resumed after a 4-year moratorium on the death penalty, as four men were executed by shooting. Human rights organizations as well as representatives of the international community deplored the executions and asked for the immediate reestablishment of a moratorium.

(Image by Ash Ka)



Friday, 23 July 2010

A democratic society should not permit state violence!

French Romantic writer Victor Hugo once proclaimed "The death penalty is the essential and lasting symbol of of barbaric behaviour".

From a human evolution standpoint, the way we distinguish between modern civilisation and the barbaric past, is our respect for other humans and life. To kill is an extremely brutal act, regardless of the circumstances, the procedures gone through and by whom it is implemented. There is no way of masking the innate barbarism of killing.

Thus, the more civilised a culture becomes, the more we start to reflect on the death penalty. In the modern world with the International Human Rights Act, the trend is truly moving towards the abolishment of the death penalty. 139 of the world's 197 countries have abolished the death penalty (no executions for 10 or more years), of the remaining 58, less than half of them carried out an execution in 2009. This serves as testament that many countries, after a period of logical analysis have realised that there is a conflict between the values of civilised societies and those under the death penalty system.

For example, many people think that the death penalty is a useful tool for alleviating the pain and anger of the victim's family as well as realising justice. However, if approaching the subject from a victim protection standpoint, then one must realise that punishing the offender with death, may for a short time satisfy the desire for revenge but is ineffective in helping the victim's family live with the loss of their relatives nor does it help look after them in the future. Furthermore the state's responsibility to care for the victims and their families not simply come to an end once the offender has been executed. In other words, the protection of victims and the death penalty system are two completely unrelated issues. Death penalty is also certainly not a key prerequisite to victim protection since in various countries around the world there are organisations of victims families who are explicitly against it and even in Taiwan there is no shortage of cases where the victims families are willing to forgive the murders of their relatives.

A questionable concept of justice

Therefore, what seems like public opinion championing the cause of justice for victims, hence strong support for the death penalty, in fact has complex social and psychological background factors. This was also perceived by Durkheim in his penal theory. To the common people, the message given by the punishment of death isn't one of caring for the victims and their families, nor is it of punishment and teaching a lesson. Neither. It is more a form of excorsising ceremony as a way of recovering what the society's psychology perceives as the broken normal order of things (especially with over exaggerations and demonisation in the media). What shines through this transparent concept is in fact human selfishness and indifference. The majority of the public who praise the death penalty system are only concerned about the disruption to the normal order of their lives. They are not truly concerned for the victims and even less so for the underlying causes of the crime, how to truly deal with the problem or how to avoid similar misfortunes in the future. In other words, this type of justice is actually full of injustice.

The values espoused by modern democracies emphasize that the people should in fact be active participants in the construction of society, rather than indifferent observers. In particular, the state's power is supposed to derive from the whole population. If the people do not fearfully guard against and recall the power of the state to deprive an individual of life; then if the day when state power shakes off the people's reins and becomes the exclusive domain of the dictator, Taiwan's White Terror history could most feasibly return.

Amnesty International has always maintained that the death penalty in itself is full of prejudice, erroneous judgements and abuse, and the instances are uncountable. Furthermore, the public's misconceptions of the death penalty, have rationalised irreparable acts of state violence and this inevitably involves some innocent victims. In conclusion, a democratic society should not permit the death penalty - a cruel and inhumane state violence.

Translated from the Chinese by Nicholas Coulson

Image: Cécile Thimoreau



Monday, 26 July 2010

Leading the long road to abolition (TAEDP)

Lin Hsinyi is the Executive Director of the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP). In a gradual reaction to the cases of Zhou Xun-shan, Lu Cheng and Xu Zi-chiang, TEADP was established in 2003, and has been working towards abolition ever since, as well as helping appeal death row cases and offering support to relatives of those who have received a death sentence or who have already been executed. They are currently the most active group in Taiwan regarding the cessation of the death penalty and are also members of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty (WCADP) and the Anti Death Penalty Asia Network (ADPAN)

As a recognisable outspoken critic of the death penalty, Hsinyi often receives personal threats on her life and body, a product of the prevailing atmosphere of hate. This atmosphere of hate is something she feels is an obstacle to objective debate on the subject. Hsinyi also feels that the resumption of executions after a four year moratorium in May was a huge setback, yet, she believes progressive steps are still being made. Here she talks about why she does not favour the death penalty as a form of punishment, the obstacles to abolishing the death penalty and what can be done in the future.

Or for readers in Mainland China, watch it here

For more information on the TAEDP, watch their own introductory video, or see the English section of their website.

Tuesday, 06 July 2010

To harm is human, to forgive is divine

Ming C. Huang is the director of the Prison Fellowship in Taiwan. The prison fellowship gives counselling to various prisoners. They also look after victims and their families and try to fully reintegrate them into society . Of particular interest is that they give counselling to those on death row. This gives Ming a rare insight into prisoners that others may have completely given up on and provides a more accurate understanding of the individual issues and mindsets of each prisoner.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The victims, the victims and the other victims

For the past 10 years Lu Ping and Lu Jing have been fighting to overturn the guilty verdict in the Chan Chun-tzu murder case. Their brother Lu Cheng was charged with the murder, and sentenced to death. On 7 September 2000 he was executed. The family found there were huge inadequacies with the case.  They argue that Lu Cheng was a brother, a father and a human being, thus the potential that he was unjustly executed brings the whole system of justice into disrepute. Here Lu Cheng's older sister's give their voice on what they see as a latent miscarriage of justice.

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The spirit medium

From a foreigner's point of view, one of the strangest things in the case was the involvement of a sort of psychic, or from the Chinese 'spirit medium' (lingmei). While for many the use of a spiritual medium in solving a crime would beggar belief, shockingly the role of the psychic appears not to have been eradicated from use in the Taiwanese judicial system. The clerk in a law court, Pan Minjie, discussed her visions with the police regarding the murder of Chan Chun-tzu when they were without leads. The police had apparently been under huge pressure to solve the crime, or perhaps find a scapegoat. The Lu's say that they found and arrested Lu Cheng as a suspect on the grounds of the spiritual medium visions. Then after 36 hours in the police station, with many issues regarding the lack of complete interview recordings, and with reports from the family of torture and extortion, Lu Cheng signed a confession. After the sentence had been passed they never again re-investigated the psychic aspect of the case and the recordings were never released.

Wednesday, 09 June 2010

“Where sin abounded, Grace abounded all the more”

Growing up in a South Suburb of Chicago in the late 1980s, I first learned about the death penalty when the American serial killer, Ted Bundy, was put to death by the electric chair. Despite being young, his name and his awful crimes were something that I have always remembered.

Hours before his execution, a Christian Evangelist named Dr. James Dobson spoke with Bundy in a taped interview. Since the content was adult and dealt a lot with Bundy’s addiction to pornography, I never heard or saw anything from this interview, I just knew that a very sick and bad person was no longer around.

From this, my very impressionable mind was made up and I do believe my opinion on the death penalty was established. Since Dr. Dobson was a Christian and was not, from my memory, speaking out against Bundy’s execution, I took the event to mean that those who truly commit heinous crimes have to be put to death to ensure the safety of others. My young mind could wrap itself around the notion of eradicating evil, in the name of death. And it did so for the next twenty years.

It seemed logical that you end the life of one who showed no respect for others and who graphically and brutally could take the lives of innocent, young and defenseless people. It made sense to use death – in certain cases – to amend for death.

I felt this way until only this year.

When you think about it, the public rarely hears about criminals who are executed – unless terrible stories accompany their killing spree. Since the start of 2010, fifteen men and women have been put to death across the United States, mostly through lethal injection. These criminals face their due while the rest of the country is none the wiser let alone made to feel safer, except for - maybe - the victim’s family.

In March, one news headline caused me to take notice when I learned that a man in Virginia was executed by the electric chair. I had no idea the electric chair was still an option. The man had brutally killed two women, and I felt a sense of relief and safety knowing he was no longer a threat. His crimes made me sick to my stomach.

I shared this bit of news with a friend, not realizing he took an entirely different stance when it came to the death penalty. He explained how he felt killing for killing was wrong, no matter how heinous, evil and despicable the crime was.

I was flabbergasted.

Didn’t justice have to be done?

My friend agreed, but contended that locking someone away for life seemed like a good way to punish and to ensure that society would be safe from someone so dangerous and immoral.

For me, a lifetime in prison just didn’t seem enough.

Prison means you still get food and shelter. Your life goes on, albeit behind bars.

In contrast, how does that rectify the innocent ones who lost their lives and should still be alive?

Our discussion shook me to the core, because I realized how much I wanted to fight for what I considered justice. For what I thought was fair.

But in talking about justice and the dignity of life, I thought of how Christ came to love and die for all. Yes, we’re all sinners, but we’re not all killers. And yet, God sent Jesus to die for the good and the bad - those who would try to live uprightly, and those who would willfully choose the path of evil. It’s a radical love that makes no sense, and is anything but fair.

It stopped me in my thoughts, because I suddenly felt a release. By demanding a life for a life, I was trying to create justice on my terms. By releasing the need to see fairness this way, I found that God gave me peace to leave punishments to Him. In place of anger, I had remorse over our fallen human existence that tries and fails at every turn. Without Christ’s goodness, we are all capable of allowing ourselves to fall so deeply into sin that we lash out in the most brutal of ways.

Without true light, we are all in darkness. While we won’t all act out to the degree of killing another human - our depravity leads us down other roads of lust, anger, malice, etc.

Two examples that further clarified this realization, deal with responses of love brought about after incredible pain and loss.

Elisabeth Elliot is a Christian writer who shares her grief experience in “Through Gates of Splendor.” In the book, she recounts how her husband and four other men felt a call to reach the "lost" people of Ecuador in the early 1950s. After months of earning the tribe’s trust, the men were attacked and speared to death. Elliot’s husband left her as a widow and her daughter fatherless. While her grief was severe, Elliot eventually went with her daughter to Ecuador and spent two years as a missionary with the tribe that killed her husband. She wrote “God is God. I dethrone Him in my heart if I demand that He act in ways that satisfy my idea of justice.”

To go back a bit further to the turn of the twentieth century, we have the devoted Italian Catholic martyr, Maria Goretti. At the age of 11, she barely survived an attack and stabbing by an attempted rapist. While in the hospital, she expressed forgiveness for her attacker and the desire to see him in Heaven. She died hours later. Her attacker was caught and put in jail, and eventually had a dream where Maria gave him flowers. When he was released, he went to Maria’s home and begged her mother for forgiveness. She forgave him and he changed his life, later becoming a laybrother.

Both families could have turned their back on these killers. With God’s help, they did not. They chose to let the killers live. And going one incredible step further, they forgave.

Will everyone repent their crime while being locked away? Only God knows. But they have a choice. As long as they breathe, they have that choice to turn from sin.

Taking another’s life as a way to bring justice is playing God, and it strips those on death row of another chance to choose God. And it strips us of the powerful freedom that comes from choosing to forgive.

While it is difficult and painful, if we lack the ability to forgive, we lack the ability to obey the words of Jesus in His prayer - “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.”

Should evil be dealt with?


Those who sin great should be greatly disciplined.

But our anger and emotion toward their actions should not result in more death.

As St. Paul’s letter to the Romans reminds us: “Where sin abounded, Grace abounded all the more.”

(Photo: C.P.)

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Steak and Cobbler

(Photo by Steve Snodgrass)

There are several arguments in support of the death penalty. The three most popular are that the death penalty deters crime, that it removes a criminal’s capacity for more crime, and/or that it is retribution for serious offenses. I contend that the death penalty’s deterrent effect is non-existent, that while it does incapacitate a criminal, this is not the primary reason for the continued existence of the death penalty.

The death penalty is, at root, retribution. It is a demonstration of the group’s power over the individual. In pre-modern societies, executions served to prevent blood feud and widening violence between families and clans. An individual act of aggression which ends in murder can spiral out of control, engulfing whole communities in the fire of mutual violence. The famous American Hatfield and McCoy feud began with a Civil War era murder, escalated with a property fight over a pig and ended with ten dead. On an even larger scale, the wars in Afghanistan over the past 30 years are an echo of blood feud and the widening spiral of violence.

As the modern Nation-State formed out of the patchwork of feudal territories and holdings, it extended a monopoly on force. Only the State could use deadly force to stop crimes. Only the State could execute criminals. Only the State could field an army. Individuals slowly lost the right to use violence outside of State sanctioned arenas. Following this trend, the State puts to death all those who challenge the State’s monopoly on violence.

The death penalty is the modern Nation-State further consolidating its monopoly on violence. This consolidation happens through the Law. The Law cannot be the personal law of Vendetta. It must be universal and extend over all, equally. It cannot be arbitrary. It must be clear, standard, and rational. The rationalization of the State’s power over life and death has caused both the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America to slowly limit cases when people may be put to death. Quite recently, the PRC has decided to no longer execute people for economic crimes. However, in this article I will only focus on the United States.

The Supreme Court of the United States has been shrinking the range of the death penalty over the past two hundred years. In 1972, Furman v Georgia put a moratorium on all state executions and an end to all federal executions, on the grounds that capital punishment constituted a form of cruel and unusual punishment because there were no Constitutional standards to guide who received the death penalty. In 1976, Gregg v Georgia lifted the state level moratorium by providing these standards. Effectively, Gregg v Georgia and four other near-simultaneous SCOTUS decisions laid down one simple rule for the application of capital punishment: A murder done while committing another felony, deserves the death penalty. (Basically, don’t stick your thumb in both eyes of the State. One crime and they won’t kill you. Two crimes at the same time and you’re done for.) However, there were no executions in the United States for another eight years. Then on December 7, 1982, Charlie Brooks, Jr was executed by lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas.



I’m from Texas. Everything’s bigger in Texas – the cities, the football teams, the trucks, the childhood obesity, the crime, the annual number of executions. We punitively kill more people a year than all the rest of the states combined. (Although in 2009, Indiana and Missouri pitched in by executing one prisoner each, helping to form what I call “the Coalition of 10” which finally allowed the rest of the United States to say Texas no longer puts more people to death than all the rest added together. From December 7, 1982 (the beginning of the lethal injection era) through July 20, 2010, the state of Texas has put 462 individuals to death at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas.

The death penalty is meted out in Texas only on these conditions:

* murder of a public safety officer or firefighter;

* murder during the commission of kidnapping, burglary, robbery, aggravated sexual assault, arson, or obstruction or retaliation;

* murder for remuneration;

* murder during prison escape;

* murder of a correctional employee;

* murder by a state prison inmate who is serving a life sentence for any of five offenses (murder, capital murder, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault, or aggravated robbery);

* multiple murders;

* murder of an individual under six years of age.


As you can see, dear reader, with the exception of child murder, two crimes at the same time, and you’re done for.

Before 1976, the death penalty was carried out in the electric chair “Ol’ Sparky” at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, TX. When the SCOTUS moratorium went into effect in 1972, Ol’ Sparky sat quiet for several years. In 1977, a Dallas television reporter and several American Civil Liberties Union lawyers filed suit to film the next execution in the electric chair. The Texas legislature wanted a less spectacular way of executing prisoners and so choose lethal injection. (“Charlie Brooks Last Words”, Dick Reavis, Texas Monthly Magazine, February 1983 p101. Available on Google books). Ol’ Sparky was never used again. However, this confrontation brings up two interesting points.

Executions historically were public affairs. In the United States, until public opinion turned against it in the 1920s, hangings were quite public affairs. Even today, in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and in Taliban controlled parts of Afghanistan, executions are still public affairs. Executions were and are spectacles. A public execution is both a deterrent and entertainment. Even the electric chair provided a form of entertainment. Students from the universities surrounding Huntsville would often come hang out outside Death Row on days when executions were scheduled, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and waiting. When the prison lights dimmed as the chair fired up and the prisoner died, the students cheered. (If you’ve ever been to Huntsville, Texas, you’d understand why this is entertainment. The only other thing to do is drink beer under a huge Lord of the Rings style statue of Sam Houston, the first president of the Republic of Texas. Huntsville isn’t all that exciting.)

Secondly, the electric chair provided the condemned the opportunity to die like a man, an all-important thing in a state like Texas, where even to this day, behavior is loosely guided by the Southern Code of Honor. (And yes, dear reader, you’re damn right it’s capitalized.) The electric chair allowed the prisoner to walk up, sit down under his own power, and die, more or less, on his feet. There was fear and terror but it was mostly over quickly. Lethal Injection changes this. The condemned is strapped to a gurney, wheeled into the execution room, hooked up to an IV and at the appointed time, the three drug combination of Sodium Thiopental, Pancuronium Bromide and Potassium Chloride does its job. Sodium Thiopental sedates the person. Pancuronium Bromide is a muscle relaxant which collapses the diaphragm and lungs. Potassium Chloride stops the heart. The offender is usually pronounced dead approximately 7 minutes after the lethal injection begins. The cost per execution for only the drugs is $86.08. (All the above from

In changing the method of execution from Ol’ Sparky to Lethal Injection, the state of Texas has removed the public aspect of execution. When a prisoner is executed, other than Texas Department of Corrections personnel, there are usually less than ten people watching. They are clergy and relatives of victims and the condemned. Texas has also removed the capacity of the condemned to die in an honorable way. Texas executions now demonstrate the utter power of the State over those who challenge its authority by reducing the prisoner to a body to be shuttled about, poked, prodded and finally disposed of.


(Photo by Tim Menzies


Charlie Brooks, Jr was the first man executed in the United States by lethal injection. He went to high school at IM Terrell High, in Fort Worth, Texas not more than about 5km from my own high school. On December 14, 1976, Brooks and his friend Woodie Loudres drank all day, then left their hotel apartment, deciding to go shoplifting. While driving around the South Side of Fort Worth, looking for place to steal from, their car died. The two then went to a used car lot, where they intended to steal an automobile. They ended up “test driving” an automobile with the used car lot’s mechanic, David Gregory. Brook and Loudres then kidnapped Gregory and at gunpoint, stuffed him into the trunk of the car. They took him back to their hotel, tied him up with duct tape and clothes hangers. In the course of the kidnapping, someone shot Gregory in the head with a revolver, killing him. (“Charlie Brooks Last Words”, Dick Reavis, Texas Monthly Magazine, February 1983 p105. Available on Google books). Because Gregory was murdered after being kidnapped, capital murder had been committed. Yet it was not clear who exactly murdered David Gregory. There were no witnesses to the actual murder and the murder weapon was never found. Yet, eight years and one week later, Charlie Brooks was executed by lethal injection after all of his appeals were exhausted.

Execution by lethal injection serves to show the absolute power of the State over its citizens. It is supposed to be rational and orderly, not capricious, yet so much of Capital Punishment in the United States is arbitrary and random. African American Males are over represented in the death row population. Black murderers and white victims results in a death penalty conviction much more frequently than black on black crime. The case of Charlie Brooks, Jr seems like a textbook example of the famous game theory experiment, Prisoner’s Dilemma. Charlie Brooks, Jr. was executed without clemency in 1982 while his partner, Woodie Loudres, was able to appeal his way to a sentence with the possibility of parole. Yet, there was a sufficient amount of reasonable doubt of Brooks actually killing David Gregory that a death penalty conviction probably should have been changed into a sentence of life imprisonment. Yet, then-Texas Governor Bill Clements refused the customary single 30 day stay of execution. Brooks was summarily executed after the Supreme Court upheld the Fifth Circuit’s denial of his appeal.



The death penalty in the the United States and especially the state of Texas serves not as a deterrent, but as retribution for transgression. The crimes necessary to incur the death penalty have been clearly spelled out in all the states that have the death penalty. Generally, one must murder someone in the course of commiting a felony. Over the past hundred years, The Supreme Court has determined the crimes for which prisoners can be put to death. This creates the ground for the states to then determine the method of execution. The move from the electric chair to lethal injection served to strip execution of any public spectacle. It also increased the power of the State over the individual by removing any agency or responsibility from the condemned. This reduction in agency, coupled with the arbitrary nature of the actual time of the execution and the rationalization of what it takes to incur the death penalty in the United States, increases the power of the State. This increase demonstrates the power of the group over the transgressive individual.

In Texas, you know what’s gonna happen if you kill a cop, a little kid, or a shop clerk in the course of a robbery. The state of Texas will kill you. But the state’s not gonna kill you because you did something bad. The state’s gonna kill you ‘cause you are flaunting the clearly delineated laws of the state of Texas. You killed. And only the State can kill. And the state’s gonna make it even worse, ‘cause it’s gonna take every bit of choice in the matter away from you. It will lie you down, strap you to a stretcher and put you to sleep. You can’t even walk to your death. The State has to show its power is absolute. Even if it does it arbitrarily. (Of course, arbitrary absolute power characterizes tyranny. Yet, a murder victim has no choice in the time of their death either. In this essay, I did not nor would not address whether the death penalty is just or not. I only described one interesting aspect of the death penalty where I come from. Think of this essay as travel literature.)

The condemned in the state of Texas can eat whatever they want for their last meal. Charlie Brooks, Jr requested fried shrimp and oysters. He was told that wasn’t in the pantry. He was given a T-Bone steak and peach cobbler instead.


Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Is abolishing the death penalty really a world trend?

Part of the reason why the subject of abolishing the death penalty has been reverberating around Taiwan can be attributed to Amnesty International.

It was in 1977 that the organisation took the decision to start campaigning to abolish the death penalty, since then they have formed a vast and influential international anti-death penalty movement. The death penalty has no crime deterrence benefits; there are often convictions of the innocent; death penalty is a barbarous act of revenge; these are all reasons provided by the organisation. There are both people that believe these arguments, and those that don’t, because it touches upon a subjective value dispute. However, the absolute line adopted by Amnesty in selling their agenda has made some believe that the abolition of the death penalty is an irreversible global trend and anyone not following is backward.

Every year Amnesty International publishes a public report on the death penalty for the previous year, clearly detailing which countries have abolished and which maintain the death penalty. As with the recently published report, the whole of the world’s mainstream media always pays close attention. There are 95 countries that have formally abolished the death penalty and in reality a further 35 countries who no longer carry it out. Whilst two thirds of the planet’s countries have cast aside the practice, those maintaining it are lead by totalitarian China. In this way, objective figures convey a subjective message: hurry up and abolish or you’re scum.

Well versed in psychology and the human mind’s fear of being amongst the minority, Amnesty successfully conducted a “paradigm shift”. Their influence has no boundaries, so it is no surprise that the argument focused on by the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty is that abolishing the death penalty is a global trend, with even the former Minister of Justice Ching-feng Wang[1] stating on the eve of her resignation “I hope the day comes when I can proudly say: this beautiful island does not have the death penalty”.

In recent years, many of the abolishing countries are in Eastern and Southern Europe; yet while it appears to be an inevitable trend, there is more to it than meets the eye. Take Poland for example, it abolished the death penalty in 1997. The reason? In order to join the European Union! The European Convention on Human Rights expressly prohibits the death penalty; thus, the EU forces this value upon all new member states. With the numerous benefits of joining the EU, the government naturally chose economic rationality and made legislation abolishing the death penalty. Since joining, however, many people found there to be no benefits of belonging to the EU and kept watching the stream of brutal murder cases continue as before. In the face of an anti-abolitionist wave, the Polish president publicly stated his support for the death penalty and called for its restoration. The EU immediately criticised him, accusing him of going against the tide. It’s clear that the Poles can do nothing but accept their fate.

On the contrary, Uncle Sam takes no notice of any global tides. Most American states maintain the death penalty, and Americans are by no means feeling uncomfortable about this. In the classic book Democracy in America, A. de Tocqueville created the term “American Exceptionalism”, pointing out that in many areas Americans are different from Europeans. This is clearly the case regarding the question of whether or not to abolish the death penalty. Supporters of the abolishment like to state that all 46 countries in Europe (apart from Belarus) have repealed the death penalty, yet, hidden in this figure are a number of miniscule nation states. When comparing with the USA, which is counted as one country, can we really say that 46 equals far more than one?

The question of abolishing the death penalty is a purely subjective controversy and the so-called global trend is a myth.

[1] Taiwan’s Former Minister of Justice, stepped down on the 11th March after public protests against her abolitionist stance on the Death Penalty


Translated from the Chinese by Nicholas Coulson

Photo: ThisParticularGreg

Saturday, 07 August 2010

Better death through circuitry

Errol Morris’ 1999 documentary Mr Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr[1]. investigates the ramshackle life of former execution device technician Fred Leuchter.

Before stumbling in to the murky waters of revisionist Holocaust history, an act that ultimately cost him his professional reputation and livelihood, Leuchter was contracted by various US states to design and improve execution devices.  Initially his field of expertise was the electric chair, however he also had the opportunity to work with lethal injection systems, offering his services for considerably less cost than other engineering firms.  While each execution method is significantly different, Leuchter’s experience with the electric chair was deemed suitable by state authorities for him to work on other devices.

For all the oddities of his sad and somewhat bizarre story, there was one thing that Leuchter said that really struck me.  He begins the movie by stating:

“I became involved in the manufacture of execution equipment because I was concerned with the deplorable condition of the hardware that’s in most of the states’ prisons, which generally results in torture prior to death”.

Grisly examples of the torture that Leuchter referred to can be found at the Death Penalty Information Center[2].  There is some merit in his idea.  Not only is a botched execution likely to be excruciatingly painful for the prisoner, the guards who have to clean up the mess and any witnesses are more than likely to be traumatised as well.

At the crux of his statement, Leuchter affirms that it is acceptable for the state to kill convicted criminals, but only as long as it is done humanely.  Only if a criminal suffers during execution does a problem arise. Leuchter’s surprising confession of altruism can be used to highlight one of the important aspects of the execution debate – humane death.

Those sentenced to death are done so because their crimes are deemed to be suitably severe.  Their penalty is to be stripped of life, arguably the strongest punishment that can be meted out to one person.

Sometime during western civilisation’s development, it became acceptable for a criminal to be executed but only if he does not feel pain.  Pain is equated with torture. The modern execution is not meant to be a spectacle; it is meant to be a clinical process, devoid of external displays of human suffering. At various stages throughout history execution has been a public spectacle, with the theatre of execution sometimes being drawn out for maximum effect.  Just think of Roman crucifixions.  These days, at least in the USA, prisoners are generally executed in private, with only a few witnesses permitted.

Describing execution as humane simply because the method supposedly does not inflict pain on the criminal is an odd justification for execution.  There is no real way to qualify how much pain someone feels in the process of execution.   Even though the convicted criminal still dies, the execution is still considered humane. Each evolution in execution technology is supposed to offer an improvement over the last.  Faster, more efficient, less chance of failure.  Not surprisingly, each new system also has a whole new bunch of technical flaws that need to be dealt with.

To justify an execution as humane because the executed person appears to show no signs of physical suffering is strange.  There is nothing humane about the essentially brutal act of taking another human’s life.  When a prisoner is executed, the state lowers itself to the level of a murderer.  That’s not to say that perpetrators of heinous crimes should not be punished – they should – but to claim that humane execution is in any way better than non-humane execution is clutching at straws.

If you are interested in the tale of Fred Leuchter, feel free to watch ‘Mr Death’ at the link below.

[1] A copy of the movie uploaded by the director, Errol Morris


Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Transitional (in)justice

When referring specifically to the death penalty in Taiwan, one must take into account transitional justice, it has after all been transforming from one that just ...years ago experienced the cruelty and barbarity of the White Terror.

Minnanese director Cheng Wen-tang, has always concerned with issues of fairness and the struggles of the common people in Taiwan. In his recent films, such as 'tears' has decided to take on the topics of fairness, forgiveness and regret in the justice system. Here he talks briefly about transitional justice.

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