Yes to death penalty?

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The death penalty in the Philippines was first abolished in 1987, making the Philippines the first country in Asia to terminate death penalty. Yet, in less than a year, with the promulgation of a new Constitution after the ouster of the Marcos dictatorship, the military establishment lobbied for its imposition to combat the alleged intensifying offensives of the Communist Party of the Philippines/New People’s Army guerillas.

In mid-1987, a bill to reinstate the death penalty was submitted to Congress, citing recent right-wing coup attempts as example of the alarming deterioration of peace and order. In 1988, the House of Representatives passed the bill that was being promoted as a counterinsurgency bill. When an ex-military officer, Gen. Fidel Ramos, was elected president in 1992, Republic Act 7659 restoring the death penalty was signed into law. Political offenses, such as rebellion, were dropped from the bill; however, the list of crimes was expanded to include economic offenses such as smuggling and bribery. In 1996, RA 8177 was approved, stipulating lethal injection as the method of execution. Six years after its reimposition, the number of death-penalty convicts increased—indicating that the death penalty is not a deterrent to criminality. Certain studies cite statistics indicating that there are no signs that criminality has gone down with the reimposition of the death penalty (http://www.phlsol.nl/AOOa/Pahra-death-penalty-maroo.htm):

1) From 1994 to 1995 the number of persons on death row increased from 12 to 104. From 1995 to 1996 it increased to 182. In 1997 the number of death convicts was at 520, and in 1998 the number of inmates in death row was at 781. As of November 1999 there were a total of 956 death convicts at the National Bilibid Prisons and at the Correctional Institute for Women.

2) As of December 31, 1999, based on the statistics compiled by the Episcopal Commission on Prisoner Welfare of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, there were a total of 936 convicts interned at the National Bilibid Prisons and another 23 detained at the Correctional Institute for Women. Of these figures, six are minors and 12 are foreigners.

3) A review of death-penalty cases made by the Supreme Court from 1995 to 1999 indicated that two out of every three death sentences handed down by the local courts were found to be erroneous by the Supreme Court. Out of the 959 inmates the SC reviewed, 175 cases were reviewed from 1995 to 1999; three cases were reviewed in 1995, eight in 1996, eight in 1997, 38 in 1998 and 118 in 1999. Of the 175 cases, the SC affirmed with finality and first affirmation only 31 percent or 54 cases involving 60 inmates. Of these cases, 24 were affirmed with finality, while the remaining 36 were given first affirmation. Sixty-nine percent or 121 cases were either modified, acquitted or remanded for retrial.

4) A study prepared by the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) on the results of the review of cases done by the Supreme Court “point all too clearly to the imperfections, weaknesses and problems of the Philippine justice system.” Some decisions of the trial courts were overturned for imposing death penalty on offenses that were not subject to death penalty. Other decisions of the lower courts were set aside because of substantive and procedural errors during arraignment and trial. Still others were struck down because the lower court misappreciated evidences.

5) Data from the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines showed that in 1998 more than half of the convicts earned less than the government-mandated minimum wage. In a survey conducted among 425 convicts in 1998, 105 or 24.7 percent were agricultural workers, 103 were construction workers, 73 were transport workers, and 42 were workers in sales and services. Only 6 percent finished college, while 32.4 percent finished various levels of high school, while the remaining convicts did not go to school or have finished only elementary or vocational education.

On June 24, 2006, then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, apparently giving in to the call of the Catholic Church, signed into law RA 9346, “An Act Prohibiting the Imposition of Death Penalty in the Philippines.” All crimes punishable by death were commuted to life imprisonment (reclusion perpetua).

Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, then candidate for president, said in one of the presidential debates that he wants capital punishment for criminals involved in illegal drugs, gun-for-hire syndicates and those who commit “heinous crimes,” such as rape, robbery or car theft where the victim is murdered. He vowed “to litter Manila Bay with the bodies of criminals.” Sen. Grace Poe then also stated that the capital punishment should apply to criminals convicted of drugs and multiple crimes where involved people can no longer be rehabilitated.

Following the election of Mayor Duterte as president, a bill to reinstate capital punishment for certain heinous offenses was swiftly reported out of the Justice Committee into the full House of Representatives in February 2017. The death penalty bill died in the Senate.

The recent surge in heinous crimes—terrorist bombings, drug trafficking, plunder, rape, murders, extrajudicial killings, smuggling, kidnaping for ransom, gun for hire —has opened the discussion on reinstating the death penalty. Tabloids, which widely publicize horrific crimes in the front pages, reinforce public fears that lawlessness and criminality have reached unprecedented levels. Certain senatorial candidates (e.g., Raffy Alunan, Harry Roque) in a recent CNN debate indicated a “Yes” vote for the restoration of death penalty.

Is death penalty the antidote to crime? Will criminals be afraid to commit a crime if they see that the government is determined to execute them? Oppositors have cited several studies debunking the deterrence theory.

I agree! What would prevent people from committing crimes is the certainty of apprehension, speedy prosecution and, if warranted, conviction. At present, severe imperfections in our justice system, where justice can be bought, could likely result in a situation where the innocent, who cannot afford the services of adequate legal counsel due to poverty, might be executed. I prefer a discussion on the “pros” and “cons” of reinstituting the death penalty—rather than a debate on lowering the age of criminal liability to 12. I shudder at the thought that our children could be “death eligible” if the death penalty were imposed!

In the midst of a strong outcry from citizens who want the government to stop criminality, let the response be genuine, effective and equitable reforms in our Criminal Justice System. The Five Pillars of the Criminal Justice System—(1) The Community, (2) The Law Enforcement, (3) The Prosecution, (4) The Courts and (5) Corrections —should function like a chain of links. A weakness in any of these links breaks the chain, resulting in a breakdown of the system, inordinate delays in the proceedings, acquittal of the guilty and conviction of the innocent.

But the biggest problem would be, in my view, a people that have become cynical, indifferent, callous, frustrated, hardened and uncaring. This is one of the bigger challenges facing this government.