“The hungry judges soon the sentence sign, And wretches hang that jurymen may dine” goes the line from an Alexander Pope poem.
In 18th century England Pope was commenting on the low value placed on the lives of the working class poor. Hangings for petty theft were common with no regard for fairness or justice. Just the crude loathing of the poor by pompous, self-righteous judges.
We like to think the world today is more enlightened but the evidence isn’t strong.
Last week the Prime Minister joined New Zealand to an international effort alongside Amnesty International to have capital punishment abolished. As part of the campaign the Government is sponsoring a resolution to the United Nations General Assembly this month calling for the abolition of the death penalty across the globe.
On the face of it, it looks winnable in the longer term. More than 130 countries have abandoned the death penalty – apparently Venezuela was the first to do so in 1863 – and over the past decade an average of three countries per year have given up capital punishment either in law or practice, or both.
The problem countries are obvious. According to Amnesty International 91 per cent of all known executions in 2006 took place in just six countries: China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan and the United States.
In the US there is a large body of research to show that the death penalty is closely linked to poverty and race. It has been clearly demonstrated that US juries are more likely to condemn to death African-American defendants than white defendants in similar circumstances.
The colour of the murder victim plays a role, too. Defendants are more likely to receive the death sentence if their victims are white than if their victims are coloured.
Similar discrimination applies to gay and lesbian defendants. It’s been estimated that 40 per cent of women on death row in the US have had suggestions of lesbianism made about them at some stage of their trial whether or not it was true. Prosecutors, too, often see their role being to inflame passion based on prejudice to get the penalty they want.
And just as in Pope’s day, death row in the US is predominantly populated by the poor.
In fact, it’s a sure bet that in every country where it is practised, those that face capital punishment will be poor and/or from a racial minority.
China leads the way. The country our Government is negotiating a free-trade agreement with is estimated to execute as many as 10,000 of its citizens each year. And as in most countries the death penalty is used in China as a means of political repression.
The last death penalty carried out here was in 1957 but the respect for life in this part of the world has a thinner veneer than we may think. Helen Clark, who earlier described the death penalty as the ultimate form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of human beings, in the next breath undermined New Zealand support for the abolition of the death penalty by refusing to comment on the death sentences shortly to be carried out in Indonesia for the Bali nightclub bombings. She made herself “unavailable for comment”.
Similarly, Foreign Minister Winston Peters, who has never been one to miss a chance to exploit cheap populism over principle, also refused to speak out against the death penalty imposed on the Bali bombers “because they had been involved in an act of terrorism”.
Comments like this may well have a feel-good factor for the likes of George Bush or the Sensible Sentencing Trust, but just what difference this makes to Winston Peters’ stated opposition to the death penalty is not clear.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard went a step further. He said he supported the death penalty for the three convicted Bali bombers because Australian lives were lost but then called for the death sentence against an Australian drug smuggler to be commuted to life imprisonment. Green MP Nandor Tanczos described the clear inconsistency as racist. The label is a comfortable fit for Howard.
The Amnesty International campaign is well deserving of New Zealand’s support. As a small country we can always punch well above our weight and were the Prime Minister to be seen as more than a convenience-first supporter of the campaign then the respect generated for us would far outweigh any political cost. As it stands, she has undermined New Zealand support for the campaign by failing to display the sort of courage we like to think is a part of the New Zealand character.
In the meantime, we have set aside the death penalty ourselves but our prisons are full of poor, predominantly brown New Zealanders.