A life for a life?
Gruesome indeed were the details that emerged following the discovery of the body of Christine Lee Silawan, 16, in Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu.
Half of the skin on her face had been peeled away, down to the bone. Internal organs from her neck were extricated, with, as a news item put it: “precise incisions and cuts.” She had been stabbed 30 times in her torso and arms, and her body dumped in a field with her underwear missing.
Criminologists say that stabbing is such an “in your face” way of killing that often there is anger and a personal grudge fueling the assailant. But what could a teenage girl—who was, according to her mother, on her way home after helping out in their parish church—have done to engender such hate?
Alarmed and outraged by Christine’s fate in the hands of her killer, netizens and other concerned citizens have aired calls for the restoration of the death penalty, something that President Duterte and his allies have repeatedly called for especially in relation to crimes supposedly committed by drug addicts.
This is expected in the immediate wake of any horrific crime. Good citizens who would otherwise hesitate before calling for others’ blood jump on the capital punishment bandwagon and start baying for the life of the perpetrators, even before any such suspects have been identified, tried and convicted. This is in the belief that bringing the killer to justice, preferably by taking his or her life, would even things up.
There is a sense of relief among ordinary folk who feel that the mere threat of capital punishment would literally put the fear of God in the hearts and minds of the criminally inclined. Then, too, there is the sense of justice felt by many, who think the taking of a life (especially in such a bloodcurdling manner as Christine underwent) is only fairly compensated by the taking of another.
But will executing killers—every time the State is able to track them down, try them and then kill them—truly a guarantee of the safety and security of the rest of us?
Unfortunately, no. Decades of research have proven that the death penalty does not deter crime, with 88 percent of criminologists interviewed for a study disagreeing that “death penalty can act as a deterrent or can lower the murder rate.” The same study showed that there is little or no difference between the deterrent effect of life imprisonment and of the death penalty. Other studies show that it is not the fear of being put to death that makes a criminal hesitate, but rather the certainty that he or she will be caught, prosecuted and punished.
In a 2004 decision, the Philippine Supreme Court acknowledged a staggering 71.77 percent rate of judicial error in death penalty cases in local courts—meaning, three out of four Filipinos on death row shouldn’t even be there. And we can’t discount the impact of power and social status on a person’s stint in prison or in court. Thousands of poor suspects spend years behind bars without even so much as a hearing, hampered in large part by incompetent or nonexistent legal assistance. No mystery why the majority of prisoners, including those on death row, belong to the poor.
Another problem with the death penalty is that it is beyond correction or rectification. Once a person is put to death, he is dead, with no room left for second thoughts, for further tests, or reconsidering the arguments used by the judge who ordered that execution.
Certainly, Christine, whose life was taken in a particularly gruesome manner, deserves justice. Her family and friends, too, are deserving of some form of consolation, or the comfort of knowing that whoever was responsible for her death will pay the price.
But even the horrors of her death will not and cannot justify the taking of another life. And indeed, using the violence used on Christine to whip up sentiment for the restoration of the death penalty is itself a violation of Christine’s memory.
We honor best her short life by ensuring that the society we build after her demise is safe, secure and just. This means working on the institutions that can best bring this to fruition, not least of them a clean and competent police force and an efficient, equitable court system.
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