Monday 16 September 2019

Patricia Casey: 'The death penalty is too cruel a weapon in battle to ensure justice is done'

'I'm not for one moment suggesting that crime should go unpunished. Rather it's the type of punishment that is in question' (stock photo)
'I'm not for one moment suggesting that crime should go unpunished. Rather it's the type of punishment that is in question' (stock photo)

Patricia Casey

On Wednesday morning I woke to a news report that a man, Mark Anthony Soliz (37), had been executed. So while I slept a man was knowingly being deprived of his life at the behest of the state. It cast a pall of sadness over me. It reminded me of the first time I became aware of the death penalty.

Caryl Chessman, a child murderer, was executed in America. I was small enough to be sitting on my mother's lap when we heard the announcement on the radio. My mother told me it was a terrible thing for any country to do and she and I prayed for his eternal rest. I have remained implacably opposed to the death penalty since that day, many years ago.

Soliz, a Texan, was convicted of shooting a grandmother during an eight-day crime spree. He, and another man, Jose Ramos, killed Nancy Hatch Weatherby aged 61 and a deliveryman Ruben Martinez. Soliz confessed to murdering Ms Weatherby. In his final statement prior to his execution, he apologised for the pain he caused his victim's family. And so well he might, for the unimaginable grief he has brought on the family of this woman. Ramos was not executed as Soliz was considered more violent and dangerous.

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Despite the terrible suffering murder inflicts on families, state-sponsored killing leaves me utterly uncomprehending that any society, calling itself civilised, can condone the taking of any life, by its agents.

It is my deeply held belief that the right to life trumps all other considerations about a person's worth.

I'm not for one moment suggesting that crime should go unpunished. Rather it's the type of punishment that is in question. Life without parole should be just that for these type of killings. I understand that it is human to want retribution.

It's the old adage, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth". But the desire for revenge is very atavistic, and one in which the state should not be acquiescent. Just as people are not born evil, they do not need to die evil.

This has been documented in scientific papers such as 'Why God is Often Found Behind Bars' by Marmur et al 2006 in the journal 'Research in Human Development'.

There is the belief that capital punishment acts as a deterrent. This is without foundation, according to the WHO although that organisation recognises accurately assessing such effects is hampered by confounders like poverty that muddy the waters. Since most killings are impulsive, thought about sanctions are unlikely to have any impact.

An ethical problem is the unequal distribution of the death penalty which seems to be specifically utilised upon poor black people, rather than criminals from other racial groups, at least in the US.

And of course there will be miscarriages of justice. In the US, data from Amnesty International shows that since 1973, 130 individuals sentenced to death have been found not guilty when DNA evidence became available. They were released.

It is tempting to ask what has the death penalty to do with Ireland? After all, we banned capital punishment in 1964. But as a nation we should be concerned at the taking of human life in any country.

Some of the 56 nations where capital punishment is still legal also use it for lesser crimes that include kidnapping, crimes against the state such as treason, and countries that have Sharia law use it against homosexuals. More than 600 people worldwide lost their lives in 2018 and this excludes the thousands executed in China.

In the short term there is little prospect of any change of heart by the Irish people on this issue but when we realise the swiftness with which we abandoned our respect for the right to life of pre-born children, the other great right to life issue, we should realise anything is possible.

Suppose there is renewed violence directed at this Republic? If journalists were murdered would the media remain so implacably opposed?

The effort to inculcate respect for all human life in every country must continue. As Seth Kretzer, one of Soliz's attorneys, said: "The hope endures, the fight goes on, and the cause never dies."

  • Patricia Casey is consultant psychiatrist in the Mater Hospital, Dublin, and Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at UCD.

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