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Screw the Death PenaltyBy David Julian Wightman on 3 May 2017
Question: How can a nation self-declared as “Christian” sentence a woman to death on the anniversary of the execution of the Messiah?
This is not a rhetorical question, but a serious moral and intellectual exercise for anyone who holds to the notions of justice, forgiveness, redemption, and treating others as you wish yourself treated.
On 13 April, just 24 hours before the start of the Easter celebrations marking the execution of Jesus of Nazareth by the Roman government of Judea, Lusaka banker Precious Longwe was convicted of murdering her husband and sentenced to death by hanging.
The verdict was unsurprising. Ms Longwe shot her husband three times during a domestic dispute, a fact that was not disputed at trial. In mitigation, the defendant claimed that her husband was abusive toward her, and that she was drunk at the time of the murder and did not remember what happened.
The fact that Precious Longwe murdered her husband is not up for debate. What should be debated, however, is the righteousness of the death sentence. It is long past due that we abolish the death penalty, and cases such as Longwe’s are proof that execution no longer has a place in Zambian law.
Simply put, capital punishment has no place in any society that wishes to call itself civilized, let alone “Christian”. Execution is not Christian, as it is not forgiving. In fact, capital punishment is the opposite of Christian, and the antithesis of forgiveness.
State-sanctioned execution is a form of hysterical vengeance and legal bloodletting. Worse, the death penalty teaches the populace that some people deserve to be killed by the State―to be put down like a rabid dog or wild beast.
As reported in the Lusaka Times, Lusaka High Court Judge Sharon Newa said “the court cannot release [Longwe] saying doing so will be sending a wrong message to society that one can kill when provoked.”
No one is suggesting that Longwe should be released! With all due respect to Judge Newa, the “wrong message” being sent to society is that the State can “kill when provoked”.
After all, how can we approved of the death penalty and then cry and complain when someone is killed by the police? What is to stop extrajudicial killings if State-sanctioned execution exists? As Amnesty International General Secretary, Salil Shetty, explains: “The death penalty is a symptom of a culture of violence, not a solution to it.”
Even in the heartland of executions, the United States, the use of capital punishment has been reducing as popular opinion turns against the vicious and outdated punishment. Support for execution has dropped to roughly 50% in 2015 from almost 80% a decade earlier. More and more Americans are rejecting the death penalty as the faults of State-sanctioned murder become more evident.
In the US, 90% of people sentenced to death were too poor to afford a decent lawyer, while many are also people of colour. 80% of death row inmates were executed for killing white victims, while 20% of all executed black defendants were sentenced to death by all-white juries. It is now widely acknowledged that many innocent people have been executed, and 152 death row inmates have been exonerated nationally.
The reality of capital punishment in Zambia is obviously different, but there are no more rational grounds for allowing State-sanctioned killing here than in the United States.
The Zambian justice system metes out wildly different sentences to such “hubby killers” as Precious Longwe. In several cases such as Longwe’s, we see the heavy handed sentence of death, while in others, some convicted murderesses have been sentenced to as little five years in prison.
While the death penalty can only be applied in cases of aggravated robbery, murder, and treason, the arbitrary nature of capital punishment sentencing is one obvious reason to abolish the draconian punishment in Zambia. Clearly some judges will lean more heavily toward the death penalty than others, and such inconsistency is not legitimate nor viable when deciding between life and death.
Fans of State-sanctioned killing claim that capital punishment deters others from committing heinous crimes, however this is simply an insight into the ignorance of the claimant. No scientific study has ever found that potential offenders are dissuaded from committing crimes based on the possible punishment, least of all capital punishment. This old idea is simply not based in fact.
What is based on fact, however, is the reality that most death row inmates had bad lawyers. In most cases, including here in Zambia, defence lawyers are underpaid and overworked. Studies in the United States have shown that significant numbers of death row inmates were represented by lawyers who showed gross incompetence, or who had been investigated, disciplined, and even disbarred for misconduct.
Poor people in Zambia are regularly denied effective legal defense due to poverty. If one is charged with a capital offense, or even lesser offenses such as drug trafficking, it is unlikely that the accused will receive adequate legal advice, let alone defense, without having “colossal” sums of money available to them.
Whether we like it or not, justice is not equally served in this country. And if we are going to continue claiming to stand for Christian values, we should take a good long look at what Jesus actually said about loving thy neighbour, doing unto others, and above all, forgiveness.
That’s not to say Precious Longwe should walk out of prison a free woman today despite her guilt. She should be sentenced to a prescribed term in prison, no doubt. But in a so-called Christian nation, should she be killed for her crime? The obvious answer is No!
The truth is, if we look at it critically and through the eyes of Jesus, the death penalty is clearly immoral and wrong. As Martin Luther King once said, “Capital punishment is against the best judgment of modern criminology and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God”.
When Amnesty International began systematically opposing capital punishment in 1977, only 16 countries had totally abolished the death penalty. Today that number has risen to 104.
Zambia should be the 105th country to end the State-sanctioned murder that is capital punishment. There is simply no legitimate reason for Zambia to sentence anyone to die at the hands of the State.
To continue doing so not only undermines our social fabric but also makes a mockery of the notion that Zambia is “Christian nation” under the blessing of a Messiah who himself was a victim of State-sanctioned murder.
About David Julian Wightman
David Julian Wightman is a Zambian-Canadian journalist and human rights activist.
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