Working to end the death penalty

By Frederic Laplanche  / 

Thu, Oct 13, 2011 - Page 8

Oct. 10 is celebrated as Double Ten National Day in Taiwan, but it’s also the world’s and Europe’s Day Against the Death Penalty. This day provides us with an opportunity to once again review the serious question of abolishing the death penalty.

A month ago, Taiwan’s Military Northern District Court found Chiang Kuo-ching (江國慶) innocent in the murder of a five-year-old girl at the former Air Force Command compound in 1996. The ruling prompts questions about the abolition of capital punishment, because it again allows us to see that, just like anywhere else in the world (including the EU), Taiwan’s judicial system can make mistakes.

Within the judicial systems of the EU member states, and in times when the death penalty was still in use, there were ample tragic examples of miscarriages of justice. In the UK, in 1949, a man called Timothy Evans was accused of murdering his own daughter, sentenced to death and executed in 1950. However, 15 years later, the prosecution’s chief witness, John Christie, was found to be a serial killer who had killed Evans’ wife, daughter and six other women. The UK’s last execution took place in 1964, while the death penalty for ordinary crimes was abolished in 1973. A Criminal Cases Review Commission was established in 1997 to review possible miscarriages of justice. The commission has since referred a number of cases back to the Court of Appeal, of which 320 convictions were quashed.

In the US since 1973, 139 death row convicts were found to be innocent thanks to evidence that surfaced after their trials. These former death row inmates had to endure the fear of being executed at any time.

All these examples tell us again and again that no judicial system anywhere is exempt from making mistakes. When mistakes are made, the judicial system and we as a society have the responsibility to amend those mistakes. However, nothing can overturn the mistake of a wrongful execution.

Human rights are universal, and abolishing the death penalty is a universal trend. So-called cultural factors should not be used to delay progress. In the past few years, many countries in the Asia-Pacific region have made significant progress. Both the Philippines and Cambodia have abolished the death penalty, Mongolia has begun the process of abolition, while South Korea has maintained a moratorium on execution for 13 years. Both Hong Kong and Macau, which are culturally similar to Taiwan in many ways, abolished the death penalty long ago. In Africa, three-quarters of the countries have abolished or maintain a moratorium on the death penalty.

Past experience tells us that to prevent wrongful executions, a full moratorium on executions is necessary. Many EU member states maintained long moratoriums before abolishing the death penalty. Hopefully, the European experience can be useful for Taiwan as it works its way toward abolition.

Frederic Laplanche is the head of the European Economic and Trade Office in Taipei.