The murder of a 10-year-old boy in Tainan who had his throat cut has again brought the death penalty debate into the spotlight. The suspect, Tseng Wen-chin (曾文欽), not only allegedly confessed to murdering the boy, his alleged rationale — that he “wouldn’t get the death sentence for taking a life or two” — has shocked society and highlighted the flaws in the nation’s approach to capital punishment.
Tseng, a 29-year-old man who had been unemployed for a long time, reportedly told police he did kill the child because he “wanted to be fed for free in prison” and felt that murder would ensure a lengthy sentence. That a young man could be driven to such desperate lengths, to be misguided enough to imagine that resorting to homicide was the answer to having no job, is discomforting enough, but this outcome, in which poverty has allegedly driven a man to commit murder, is indescribably tragic.
Tseng’s professed motive also illuminates the contradictions within the government’s policy on capital punishment. The presumption was that because of the prevailing distaste for handing down death sentences, a defendant would not be executed for taking one or two lives so therefore murder was a way to be fed and housed in jail for an extended period.
In Taiwan, the legal process in cases of capital punishment stipulates that at least three appeals must be made. The increasing importance given to human rights has seen ever-stronger calls for the abolition of the death penalty. This has made judges more cautious when delivering verdicts in such cases, and an extraordinary appeal and retrials often follow the three required appeals. Even after a final verdict is given, a Control Yuan investigation or a presidential pardon remain options to overturn the sentence. These are warranted given some of the egregious miscarriages of justice that have come to light.
The Supreme Court has sought to introduce clarity into the standards by which judges arrive at these decisions — for the sake of the judges, the defendants, the victims’ families and society as a whole.
However, the Ministry of Justice has been reluctant to carry out executions. Ever since former justice minister Wang Ching-feng (王清峰) resigned over her insistence on a stay of executions, the ministry has only sanctioned nine executions. There are currently 61 individuals on death row awaiting a decision. The ministry’s prevarication undermines the courts’ authority in making their final ruling.
Taiwan has made two international human rights covenants national law and respects the human right to life, but capital punishment remains part of its legal system. Judges continue to hand down death sentences in accordance with the law, but executive bodies do not carry these sentences out. Therein lies the contradiction that Tseng has purportedly sought to exploit. He discerned the flaw in the policy and this allegedly gave him a motive for murder. Now that the spirit of impartial and strict meting out of due punishment has been undermined by this contradiction, the concern is that there will be similar cases in the future.
The government must make more of an effort to support the unemployed and establish more effective social welfare mechanisms. It must also look into ways to erase the contradictions in the death penalty law.
If the government decides to move toward abolishing the death penalty, it will need to address the implications the removal of this sanction could have for society. It will need to reinforce both the law and attitudes to the sanctity of human life, and impress upon the public that a life cannot be taken away lightly. The government should also encourage the legislature to amend the clauses within the Criminal Code pertinent to capital punishment, so that the judiciary and the Ministry of Justice act in concert. Otherwise, this confusion over the most final of punishments will continue.