Letter from Dudley Au (Published in an edited form in CN26/05, Dec 25)

Dear Sir

I read with interest the views put forward by the Catholic Church and that of Mr. Alex Au, social commentator, at the forum on Nov 7 at Hotel Asia, in Vanessa Lee's report. First, I have to say that as a Catholic I am obliged to follow the teachings of my faith. Having said this and with the brains God gave me, I presume I am allowed the freedom to use my cognitive power, to analyse the death penalty in the Singapore context.

My stand was made clear in my letter (Nov 7), which appeared in the tabloid "Today" under "Voices". Allow me to elucidate what was said in conjunction with the article "Appeals fail, but Nguyen will die in the faith" (CN, Dec 11). On a personal level I am against the death penalty because it always pains me to read about another human being's life being extinguished. As a matter of fact, I have always felt uneasy over innocent, harmless animals, which do us no harm and mean us no harm, being forcefully put to death in religious rituals.

However, I supported the death penalty because I believed it was a deterrent and we have to do what is humanly possible to stop the crime which infuses every strata of society with its cancerous permeation. In "Where the church stands on the death penalty" (CN, Dec 11) it was said the death penalty was applied with gross inequity in the U.S. where demographically the poor and racial minorities were predominant on death row. This was true and opponents in the U.S. argued that it was applied unequally where the majority executed were poor, uneducated, and non-white.

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At the same time, in contrast, there was a strong sense of justice among many Americans that demanded retribution for heinous crimes. For a few years during the mid-1960s public opinion opposed the death penalty by a small margin. Increases in the crime rate in the late 1960s and 1970s swung heavy majorities back in favour of capital punishment. In 1972, in Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments against cruel and unusual punishment and the process of law.

In 1976, in Gregg v. Georgia, Profitt v. Florida, Jurek v. Texas, the Supreme Court finally held that the punishment of death does not invariably violate the Constitution. The court admitted it is true the Eighth Amendment prohibited cruel and unusual punishment, but these must be interpreted in a dynamic fashion, reflecting changing moral values. The American doctrine of constitutional relativity allowed this, especially to the Bill of Rights. The social purposes of retribution and deterrence justified the use of the death penalty, the court said in elucidation.

For many years, sociologists scorned the notion of deterrence. It was argued urbanisation, density, poverty, age, race, and other demographic factors exerted more effect on crime rates than the characteristics of the legal system. Following studies challenged this view. Sociologist Jack P. Gibbs studied criminal homicide rates and related them to the factors of certainty and severity (Erickson and Gibbs: The Deterrence Question; and, Gordon Tullock : Does Punishment Deter Crime?) Gibbs worked with South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah. In Nevada there was a low of 24 to a high of 132 in North Dakota.

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He found states above the median-certainty and median severity rates had lower homicide rates than states below both medians. The crucial factor was that there had to be a synergy of certainty and severity. Any pretermission of either rendered the deterrence futile. Economist Isaac Ehrlich analysed the death penalty in forty-eight states between 1933 and 1969 (The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: A Question of Life or Death). He studied execution and murder rates, controlling for other variables and concluded a trade off between executions and the reduction of killings was approximately one for eight - each execution was associated with saving eight potential victims.

Tullock argued that to increase the deterrent effect of punishment, potential criminals must be given information about it. Mr. Nguyen knew the consequences and still chose to gamble his life against the profit involved. He chose the path he trod and the business of destroying hundreds of lives, not to mention, family sorrow and the utilising of a country's health services and the violence of addicts to get funds to feed their addiction. Which is more inhumane to hang the trafficker or the trafficker's destruction of human lives? Australia, it is said, is the world's worst country for drug abuse.

To remove the death penalty is to allow the trafficker a safer access to his trade. Rehabilitation has been suggested. There may be some who will be rehabilitated but what about the others who see the rehabilitation as a loophole to escape the gallows? The point in contention is to stop Singapore becoming a drug traffic hub. I do not like to see a human clinically killed but at the same time I cannot let the obfuscation of reality, by ideology, put our families in such danger.

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