Australia needs to speak up on capital punishment

By Sophie Leaver | 25 Jun 16
Myuran Sukumaran, self portrait and portrait of fellow death-row inmate Andrew Chan

Last year I moved to Mississippi where I worked with indigent clients on death row. Working in post-conviction defence for capital murder cases, my task was to investigate every single detail of the client’s background: their family, upbringing, mental capacity, psychological history, and medical details. I also combed through every detail of their gruesome crimes: shocking details of the violent murders they had committed, repulsive photos of their bloodied or mutilated victims, and harrowing transcripts of court hearings and witness interviews.

But not once was I even close to being able to reconcile the idea that these clients deserved to be killed by the US Government. Never, even learning the most heinous details of crimes that push the very limits of human evil, did I believe that they ought to be slowly and painfully put to death by lethal injection.

The question is not whether or not the individual deserves to live; it’s whether or not the state deserves to kill them. And the answer should always, unequivocally, be no.  Capital punishment is a symptom of injustice; a mechanism of government control that preys on the vulnerable, breeds violence, and encourages vengeance. The death penalty is state-sanctioned murder and, far from restoring justice, it completely distorts the balance of power between state and citizen.

Immersed in the culture of America’s deep south, I felt like I had gone back in time. Racism is so deeply ingrained there that I felt a constant, uneasy tension gnawing away at everyday life. Amongst the guns, the gospel church services, and the copious amounts of fried chicken and waffles, I felt worlds away from home. I felt a sense of relief that I would be going home to a country where the death penalty didn’t exist, where we don’t spend millions of dollars each year to keep people in torturous solitary confinement awaiting their painful death, and where we don’t allow our justice system to disproportionately end the lives of the most vulnerable members of our society.

But now that I’m home, I feel compelled to step sheepishly down from my moral high horse. Even though the death penalty was abolished in Australia in 1973, we have failed to take an active, bipartisan approach that will contribute to the global abolition of the practice. The death penalty is a practice that is rife among our neighbours in the Asia–Pacific region and our diplomatic and trading partners, (as seen in this map depicting the status of capital punishment across the globe. Moreover, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) has contributed to investigations leading to the execution of suspected criminals, by sharing information with international agents. An in-depth discussion of the mutual assistance and agency-to-agency programs can be read in a speech by The Hon John Von Doussa QC.

Our stance must not waver depending on the citizenship of the victim or the country carrying out the execution.

Following the tragic deaths of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in Indonesia last year, the need to reform the Australian laws that allow these information sharing practices became clear. We need to amend our approach to international criminal justice in order to remain consistent in our stance against the death penalty. Our foreign policy stance must not waver depending on the citizenship of the victim or the country carrying out the execution.

Although Australia no longer carries out executions on its own soil, we need to work harder to fulfil the obligation set out in the second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, under which our government agreed to show an “international commitment to abolish the death penalty”. This same protocol states that abolition of the death penalty “contributes to enhancement of human dignity and progressive development of human rights”. In line with this, our approach to the death penalty needs to show an unwavering and equal commitment to all human life, instead of on a case-by-case basis. A comprehensive, detailed foreign policy strategy regarding our nation’s unconditional opposition to the death penalty would help facilitate this.

Australia has an arsenal of strong diplomatic ties that it can and should use to strengthen its role as an active abolitionist nation. We need a more assertive voice within our bilateral relationships with nations such as China, Vietnam and Pakistan, and within the UN and other multilateral organisations to support a global moratorium on the death penalty.

The United States continues to have one of the highest execution rates in the world. Its persistent use of the death penalty completely contradicts the promulgated policies and values of a democratic, developed nation. Capital punishment exists as an extension of the darkest corners of America’s history of slavery, lynching, terror and segregation.

During my time working in Mississippi, it quickly became clear that the way in which people are convicted and sentenced is dictated by a long chain of racial bias. In his TedX talk “We need to talk about an injustice”, capital defence lawyer Bryan Stevenson explains that between 1976 and 2015, 31 white defendants were executed for killing an African-American victim, while 295 black defendants were executed for killing white victims. Today, a defendant is 11 times more likely to receive the death penalty if their victim was white, and 22 times more likely to receive it if they themselves are African-American. The overwhelming evidence of insidious racism in America’s law enforcement is often overlooked, or even condoned, by a public that is more interested in maintaining order than seeking justice.

Australia has done little to condemn the use of the death penalty in the US, for fear of damaging strong diplomatic ties. Our government needs to stop overlooking the consistent and blatant denial of human rights and dignity at the hands of such a close ally, and needs to tackle this issue head-on. After all, friends don’t let friends kill people.

Death row in Parchman penitentiary, Mississippi, is a suffocatingly desolate place filled with men who are capable of unconscionable violence. But what I came to learn is that they are also capable of the many other emotions and qualities scattered along the spectrum of human existence: love, humour, self-reflection, kindness, creativity and remorse. I came to know them not as the murderers they had been labelled, but as the humans they were. I met their families, visited their homes, and traced back the steps that led to their incarceration. The most important thing I came to understand is that we are all so much more than our worst actions.

We need to work towards a more evolved global criminal justice system that takes this into account.