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[OPINION] In search for true justice: Death penalty is a false solution

[OPINION] In search for true justice: Death penalty is a false solution
The passion of Christ vivified nothing less than the destruction of the scales of justice if only to tilt in favor of the selfish desires of the wicked


Once again our predominantly Catholic country will observe Holy Week as the culmination to the 40-day Lent. It is during this time of the year when we pause and reflect over the pixels of our lives, and remember how “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”  

This Holy Week we recall the story of an innocent man who came to the world as Savior – who healed and brought to life the sick and the dead, who exposed the corruption and lavish lives kept hidden inside temples, and who sympathized with tax collectors and prostitutes because in the eyes of God we are all His children, but who was in turn crowned with thorns and scourged mercilessly, who carried the very cross he was sentenced to die on. 

The passion of Christ vivified nothing less than the destruction of the scales of justice if only to tilt in favor of the selfish desires of the wicked. It epitomizes everything that is wrong in a system that permits the taking of a life under a set-up that is neither perfect nor error-free.

Capital punishment, popularly known as “death penalty,” can be defined as a state-sanctioned act of executing a person sentenced to death after conviction by a court of law of a criminal offense. The history of the imposition of death penalty in the Philippines shows a volte-face attitude that clearly depicts the divided opinion and reception of our people towards the purpose, aptness and effectivity of the punishment. 

President Rodrigo Duterte rose to fame for his rather simplistic style of governance; relying mostly on threats of brute force and actual violence to get his way. His presidential campaign leaned heavily on both the promises of ridding the country of drugs with a violent campaign, through which he promised that he will “kill all the druglords,” and of the restoration of death penalty to deter crimes. But is death penalty as golden as the promise?

Senate support

Senator Panfilo Lacson recently made a pitch to reimpose capital punishment in an effort to discourage drug cartels operating in the country. “We should also open our eyes to the reality. They will make this country a playground for drug lords because they play with impunity and it’s profitable for them,” he said.

The campaign in the Senate to restore death penalty is currently led by Senate President Vicente Sotto, III and Sen. Emmanuel Pacquiao. 

SP Sotto admitted that a majority of senators do not support the death penalty. He said he, Sen. Lacson and Sen. Pacquiao are working to convince their fellow senators to support the death penalty measure, at least for high-level drug trafficking and other heinous crimes.

The poor as victims 

From historical experience and in-depth studies we realize how imperfect and inadequate our justice system is. Socio-economic realities have skewed the implementation of the law against the poor and the marginalized. Police raids and warrantless arrests are an everyday occurrence for our countrymen in the slum areas who are lucky enough to make it out alive. At the same time, the same police force approach the gated communities with respect and full accord of their rights.

Equal Justice Initiative founder and Executive Director Bryan Stevenson argues that, “Our justice system treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.”

This observation is even more pronounced in the Philippines with our increasing levels of social and material inequality. Here, our detention facilities and penal institutions are overflowing with detainees and offenders belonging mostly to the lower socioeconomic classes. For instance, in a 2004 study, the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) surveyed a total of 890 death row inmates at the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa and Correctional Institution for Women in Mandaluyong and discovered that the profile of the then death row was reflective of the Filipino poor: largely uneducated, mostly underemployed and generally inhabiting hovels and shanties. 

Such an uneven system of administering justice leads to the erosion of our faith in the law and the legal system.

Death penalty: the cure or the poison?

In incidents of terrorism, rape, and other heinous crimes where victims are horrendously and helplessly slain or notoriously dishonored, the knee-jerk response of traditional politicians is to propose to make the punishment so severe as to create an illusion of justice. Under immense pressure to appease the angry mob and ease the outrage of the public for retribution, many legislators pin the blame on the absence of the death penalty as the cause of heinous crimes. They would argue that if there is a threat of capital punishment, the offenders would not dare commit such depraved acts. 

On the contrary, there is no empirical evidence that death penalty curbs crime. In fact, global trend is towards its abolition. Amnesty International reported in 2018 that 121 of the UN’s 193 member states voted on a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. When the UN was founded in 1945 only 8 of the then 51 UN member states had abolished the death penalty. Today, 103 of 193 member states have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, and 139 have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.

Our focus should be to ensure that our justice system punishes the true offenders, while our government address the social injustice that breeds or encourages criminal or anti-social behavior.

This trend is brought about by various studies proving that there is no empirical evidence that death penalty deters crime in any part of the world. In fact, leading criminologists Michael Radelet and Traci Lacock (2009) presented the consensus among criminologists that the death penalty does not add any significant deterrent effect in lowering homicide rates compared to long-term imprisonment.  

This can be confirmed by another local study conducted by FLAG, in 2004, which revealed that majority of 1,121 death row inmates knew about death penalty before they even committed their offenses. Despite this, the study also uncovered that more than half of them, did not know that the crimes they were charged of were subject to capital punishment. This obliviousness may even be caused by poverty and lack of education, which are indicators that the poor are the only ones targeted by this measure.

Senator Francis Pangilinan, who used to chair the Senate committee on justice and human rights, shared that during their hearing on the measure suspending the imposition of death penalty, it was revealed that despite 7 death penalty executions undertaken under the Estrada administration from 1998 to 1999, the crime rate further increased by 15.3%. 

The certainty and swiftness of punishment is more effective than tougher sentences. An ineffective system of implementing the law provides criminal elements an opportunity to avoid punishment making the nature of the penalty immaterial. Our focus should be to ensure that our justice system punishes the true offenders, while our government address the social injustice that breeds or encourages criminal or anti-social behavior. 

Flawed and decaying criminal justice system and its irreversibility  

The Supreme Court in the case of People vs. Mateo (2004) admitted that a considerable majority of the trial courts had wrongfully imposed the death penalty during the time it was sanctioned as a sentencing option from 1993 to 2004. In the said case, the SC said that for 11 years from 1993 to June 2004, 907 out of 1,493 cases were submitted to the Supreme Court for judicial review. Of this number, the death penalty was only affirmed in 230 cases or 25.36 % of the cases for review. More than half (53.25%), or 483 death penalty cases, were reduced to reclusion perpetua, while 65 were acquitted. A shocking declaration of the Supreme Court revealed a judicial error of 71.77% that time saving 651 out of 907 appellants from death.  It was a clear “miscarriage of justice,” as described by then Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban.

This phenomenon of judicial error even discounts the poison that is corruption – so potent is its powers that it does not only bedevil ordinary agencies of government, but has reached even the hallowed halls of our courts. 

To compound this problem would be the irreversible nature of the capital punishment. All too often we have seen convictions reversed years later after pieces of evidence have surfaced that would exonerate the accused.

Our current policy and international commitment on death penalty 

The 1987 Constitution prohibits the imposition the death penalty save “for compelling reasons involving heinous crimes” as may be provided for by Congress. Death penalty was reintroduced in our county in 1993 but was prohibited again in 2006.

To solidify our commitment against death penalty, we even acceded to the International Treaty on the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in November 2007. This requires all state parties, the Philippines included, to “take all necessary measures to abolish the death penalty within its jurisdiction.”

Death penalty as a weapon of repression 

The death penalty has historically been used as a weapon to suppress dissent and oppress the political opposition.  The practice even pre-dates the most infamous of death penalty sentences ever carried out.  Four centuries before Jesus Christ was sentenced to die on the cross, the philosopher Socrates was sentenced to die based on charges apparently arising from his act of asking politico-philosophic questions of his student, but were, in reality, motivated by suspicions regarding his political affiliations and his vocal criticism of Athens’ political system and prominent citizens. 

Just recently, we have seen the zeal of our law enforcers to implement arrest warrants for petty cases against Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, while going easy against Imelda Marcos and Nur Misuari for graft and rebellion cases, respectively. We have seen how the law is used to silence witnesses against criminal wrongdoings of the administration allies without making any sincere effort to investigate the allegations. 

If the death penalty were reinstated, it would be a taxpayer-funded machinery for political assassination. Freedom to speak and to dissent would die, and with it our democracy. 

In fact, one need not look further than this author’s experience to see the disparity between how this administration treats persons who are guilty of nothing more than being vocal critics of its acts, omissions and policies, versus how it treats its allies who are guilty of the most heinous of offenses.  I have now been under detention for 779 days already, based on trumped up charges that are supported by no corpus delicti, but relies chiefly on the perjured and self-serving testimonies of self-confessed drug lords.  And yet, these self-confessed drug lords, save for one, were not charged at all for their undisputed participation in the drug trade.  I, an innocent political opponent, is behind bars, while the real drug lords have gotten away with their crimes. 

If the death penalty were reinstated, it would be a taxpayer-funded machinery for political assassination.  Freedom to speak and to dissent would die, and with it our democracy. 

Death penalty is an outdated way of addressing criminality

Putting criminals to death as a form of punishment has existed in the earliest of human civilizations. It may seem inherently logical to human beings to reason that a person who takes the life of another should also be killed. A life for a life. For many, this is justice. However, in light of the many researches and studies in the administration of criminal justice, given the imperative for a more humane understanding of and approach to the root causes of poverty and criminality, the time has come for us to confront and re-examine the timeless questions surrounding the imposition of death penalty.  

The complex problem of criminality in the Philippines calls for an urgent but strategic response. If we believe that death is the answer to curbing criminality and exacting the highest possible price for committing a crime is indeed right and just – with thousands of deaths under the so-called war on drugs of the Duterte administration – why is crime and corruption still rampant in the Philippines? 

Politicians will try to pander with tough talks and promises of harsh punishment against criminals. However, they are all cheap and meaningless if they do not translate to actual arrests, prosecutions and convictions. 

Criminality is a more complex and nuanced matter than politicians will care to admit. The reinstatement of the death penalty – and equating death with justice – is a patently fallacious and iniquitous way of going about it.

The problem requires a multi-dimensional and multi-level approach considering how aggravating and aggravated the situation is. Our justice system is weak and the poor are even more enfeebled as studies have repeatedly shown that an empty threat of death is never the answer. Over and above legislating for death penalty, our Congress should be pushing for bills on prosecution and judicial reforms that would make our justice system more effective and efficient. 

An honest-to-goodness administration of justice bests any legislation increasing penalty on crimes; and a sincere governance that would raise the quality of life of our people would keep them from a life of evil. The Bible says in Zechariah 7:9, “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.’” –

Senator Leila de Lima, a fierce Duterte critic, has been detained in a facility at the Philippine National Police headquarters for more than two years over what she calls trumped-up drug charges. She is a former justice secretary and chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights.

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