The alleged killing of two police officers by Lin Hsin-wu (林信吾) has triggered the recurring election season conversation about the death penalty. Most Taiwanese look to the media to guide their sense of ethics of the legal system in the absence of a legal expert.
Every time this conversation is embarked on, it always seems to lack a sense of perspective and appears to be held in a miseducated echo chamber. The dominant narrative created by media talk shows includes disputable hot-button words such as “deterrence” and “restitution” to impose a reaction.
The Taiwanese media’s discussion about capital punishment often overlooks that abolition is a global trend. Across the world, countries have recognized that “an eye for an eye” is a dated approach, rethinking what constitutes justice.
International studies about the death penalty are continuously ignored by the media. It has been found that the practice of sentencing someone to death does not prevent future crimes from being committed, rather it creates a brutalization of society.
Capital punishment is interwoven into the fabric of countries with a history of colonialism, imperialism and authoritarianism. As countries face their identity as democratic and humanitarian entities, there is less space for the death penalty in that system.
Taiwan’s use of capital punishment is a product of its colonial rule by Japan and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) one-party dictatorship. As Taiwan continues to proclaim its democratic success, it cannot shake off its archaic sentencing of capital punishment.
Taiwanese have avoided conversations about the death penalty due to a disinterest in an outsider’s agenda that seeks to expand human rights in Taiwan. Many point to the US as reason enough as to why retaining the death penalty is justified.
However, in the US, only a handful of states maintain the death penalty. This form of sentencing is diminishing each year. As of this year, there are only 20 US states using the death penalty.
One of the more recent states to abolish it, in 2019, was New Hampshire. The movement toward abolition in the state started in 1985. In 2008, the last case to receive a death sentence was the killing of a police officer that occurred in a similar manner to that of the Lin case. In that case, Michael Addison resisted arrest by police officer Michael Briggs, and while being chased down, Addison fatally shot Briggs.
The parallels between the cases are striking: Addison and Lin come from lower socioeconomic classes; both had a record prior to arrest and both committed the alleged murders when police attempted to apprehend them. Both are people who the public does not want to support. They are the kind of people who we identify as the most horrendous of murderers: We had given up on them even before a crime was committed. Then, once a crime was committed, we refused to think about what led to that act.
The death sentence for Addison shaped the debate about the death penalty. Despite the trauma of the killing, the people of New Hampshire still eventually abolished the death penalty. Perhaps the most compelling statement was offered by John Breckenridge, a New Hampshire police officer and partner of Briggs who was present when Briggs was shot.
“As a Catholic I could not justify the very premeditated act of executing someone who — for all the evil of his crime and all the permanent hurt he caused others — still lives ... in the possibility of spiritual redemption,” Breckenridge said.
When the death penalty was repealed by the state legislature, then-New Hampshire senator Melanie Levesque, a Democrat, said that capital punishment is “archaic, costly, discriminatory and final.”
Despite what has been made to be believed, the death penalty does not protect the law enforcement community, it does not deliver the justice that crime victims and their families are looking for, and it is prone to mistakes.
The state legislators voted to repeal in the recognition that allowing the state the power to take a life is impermissible.
“This is called an issue of conscience, because it supersedes any consideration of politics,” said New Hampshire Senator Bob Guida, a Republican.
Legislators and their constituents bent toward their moral values rather than sensational news, recognizing that the death penalty was being used as an emotional response to crime.
When New Hampshire abolished the death penalty, it was because of the belief that the death penalty was not serving the community in ways that were once believed to be true.
Most importantly, it was because people, after becoming better educated, were able to change their minds. The people of New Hampshire learned to distinguish between what is equitable and what is emotional, and emerged with the understanding that state-administered death does not have a place in a democratic government.
Under Article 57 of Taiwan’s Criminal Code, judges are responsible for choosing which crime is more severe than the other. In the judicial system, when a case is identified as the most heinous, an attempt is then made to apply the death sentence.
However, murderers do not consistently receive the same sentencing. Time and again, it is the people whom we have given up on who we consider to be the most monstrous of criminals.
Capital punishment is the continuous act of picking and choosing whose life is more valuable. The argument that one life is more important is a difficult judgement to make, although we entrust that decision to the judicial system, which is also filled with imperfect humans having biases.
When we justify the taking of one life because of the loss of another, we are taking a stance made through emotion rather than rationality.
For the past decade, with the trend toward global abolition of the death penalty, Taiwanese media and politicians have prevented constructive conversations about abolishing capital punishment. Time and again, they point to justice for the victims and their families.
Of course, grief is not something that can easily be diminished or overlooked, but the justice system is meant to be just for all: not just the people we pick and choose it to work for, but for all of society.
Maria Wilkinson was born in New Hampshire and currently resides in Taiwan.
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