Monday Horror Renews Debate on (and Thirst for) Capital Punishment

The satisfaction of bloody retribution notwithstanding, capital punishment is the lazy way out, as it doesn’t require us to address the real issues
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J. Michael Cole
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Once again the crowds were calling for blood on Monday after an individual decapitated a four-year-old girl with a meat cleaver in Neihu, Taipei. The random act of incomprehensible violence has re-energized those — a majority here — who support capital punishment and could turn into a challenge for the incoming Tsai administration that is far less amenable to maintaining the death penalty. Although anger is perfectly understandable under such circumstances, Taiwanese society cannot afford to let hot emotions dictate how it deals with such matters; cool, analytical minds must prevail in such trying times.

The truth of the matter is that capital punishment doesn’t work, at least not if it is regarded as a means to deter heinous crimes. Individuals who butcher toddlers in cold blood in front of their mothers do not operate under the rational, cost-versus-benefit analysis that governs the rest of us. The morals (variations of “thou shalt not kill” that exist across civilizations) and instinct for self-preservation that make killing another human being so abhorrent to ordinary people do not register with psychopaths who either do not comprehend the consequences of their acts or simply do not care. With them, fear of retribution doesn’t act as a check on their actions.

The same can be said of the clinically insane, whose mental imbalance means that they are not legally responsible for or aware of their acts, which are committed in a state of severe nightmarish delusion. That is why in many countries such insane individuals, after professionals have established their status, are not executed for their crime.

That, of course, assumes that support for capital punishment stems from a belief in its deterrence value. Already the mother of the young victim yesterday said, with astounding composure given the circumstances, that this doesn’t work. Still, there are others who, while admitting that the deterrent value of capital punishment is limited, nevertheless support the death penalty, either for the brief satisfaction that such retribution (“public bloodlust”) will give them (and presumably the families of the victims) or because they do not believe that taxpayers should spend money supporting the perpetrators throughout their lifelong incarceration.

The more fundamental problem, in my opinion, is that the death penalty engages us in a slippery slope. How much evidence is necessary before a court can decide with enough certainty that a criminal is to be executed? How can we be certain that the chain of evidence wasn’t tampered with or planted in order to protect powerful or politically connected individuals? What of the impact of trial by the media, which in the present case has made a spectacle of public indignation, spearheaded by members of organized crime who physically assaulted the perpetrator on his way to the police station? Or, as we saw with the current administration when it was in the depths of a political crisis, what do we make of expediency, when a government ostensibly uses executions to appease or distract a restive population, to bolster its popular support, or to attack its political opponents?

All these questions suggest that the problem with capital punishment lies not with the clear-cut cases but rather in the many others where we simply cannot be sure that an individual is guilty. And once we systematize the death penalty and make it a normal course of action, we open the door to future abuse. And mistakes. There have been several cases over the years where individuals were executed for crimes that they very likely did not commit, or using evidence that came from dubious sources (e.g., Chinese law enforcement).

The satisfaction of bloody (or chemical) retribution notwithstanding, capital punishment is the lazy way out, as it doesn’t require us to address the much more complex issues that gravitate around the matter. And as long as we do not address those, other horrible crimes such as the one that was committed on this sunny Monday morning will happen again, and again, and again, and the only thing we will accomplish is to perpetuate this cycle of death.

Two main and highly complex issues need urgent addressing. The first one is Taiwan’s legal institutions, where “procedural confusion,” as Jerome Cohen and Chen Yu-jie wrote in 2010, has undermined the legitimacy of executions. In its current state, it is very difficult to put our faith in the integrity of the legal system here, and until this has been resolved the Ministry of Justice should not have the ability to decide on the greatest human right of all, and that is the right to life. We should also add that Taiwan currently does not have a life without parole system, which if implemented would at least ensure that there exists an alternative to the death penalty which also ensures that someone who is a danger to society will not be released at some point.

The second issue is mental health. Mental hospitals and institutions in Taiwan are severely underfunded, with little follow-up after treatment. Many individuals who require help are left to wander alone in daytime and recuperated at dusk, either by the institution or the family. Moreover, mental illness is very much stigmatized in Taiwan and families will sweep the individual in need under the carpet, as admission would constitute a loss of face. In many cases, this means that the individual in question will not receive the help that he or she needs to get better, or at least to manage the condition. Based on the information that has emerged since yesterday, there is every indication that Wang Ching-yu (王景玉), the young man who murdered the toddler on Monday, fits that description.

The easy way out is to call for his blood and take solace in his execution; the more difficult, but in the end far more constructive, path would be to take an honest look at mental illness and the systemic failure in Taiwan to provide proper care and monitoring for those individuals, a tiny percentage of whom will, in extreme cases, turn into a danger to society.

And one last thing, which under the circumstances we can regard as a positive note: we are probably lucky that Taiwan has strict gun control laws, as video footage shows that the perpetrator wandered into a school before being chased out by an alert teacher. Had he walked in not with a cleaver but an assault rifle, it is very likely that yesterday’s horror would have been far, far worse.

 

J. Michael Cole is the editor-in-chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, and an associate researcher with the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei. The views expressed in this article are his alone.

3 Responses to “Monday Horror Renews Debate on (and Thirst for) Capital Punishment”

March 30, 2016 at 12:59 am, Mike Fagan said:

“…the problem with capital punishment lies not with the clear-cut cases but rather in the many others where we simply cannot be sure that an individual is guilty.”

This is also true in respect of at least two other types of cases. “Hate-crime” cases (where the difficulty is establishing the precise motive), and rape cases (where there are also difficulties with evidence). In order to be consistent, those who argue against the death penalty legislation should also argue against both hate-crime legislation and against attempts to increase rape convictions by lowering standards of evidence.

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March 30, 2016 at 1:35 am, Mike Fagan said:

“…capital punishment is the lazy way out, as it doesn’t require us to address the much more complex issues that gravitate around the matter.”

That does rather assume that those “complex issues” can actually be “addressed” such that these crimes do not occur again. What evidence is there for that assumption?

My own conjecture is that it’s not simply a funding/political problem, it’s a knowledge problem. A report yesterday cited the Songde hospital as saying that just because Wang had sought treatment there doesn’t mean he had a mental illness. The basic problem seems to be that there is so little predictive power to clinical psychology as a “science” that it is very hard to distinguish someone who may be a danger to others from someone who isn’t – particularly if the person’s particular condition or disorder does not remain static.

So even if the government pushed unlimited funding into these institutions, it’s not necessarily true that the good people working there could prevent more such monstrous crimes from happening in the future, or even reduce the numbers. If an individual received treatment at a mental health institution and subsequently committed a murder, or some other violent crime – would the victims’ family have a rightful claim to hold that institution to account for not doing their job properly? I don’t think so because I don’t think the science is good enough yet.

That is not a criticism of clinical psychologists or of the people who work in mental health institutions. It is simply to point out that there are limits to their professional knowledge due to the subject nature of the field and that despite their best intentions these people are not miracle workers.

Calls for capital punishment may or may not be “lazy”, but acknowledging the limitations of our knowledge concerning mental health issues is not. It is both rational and necessary.

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March 30, 2016 at 1:47 am, Mike Fagan said:

And one more thing regarding the death penalty… I don’t think it’s wise to entrust this power to the judicial wing of a government for some of the same reasons outlined in this article. However, if the mother had killed Wang on the spot in defence of her child – either with some combination of her hands, his head and the pavement, or with some kind of improvised weapon like a ball-pin hammer driven through his skull, or with a firearm… I would have absolutely no complaint or objection whatsoever.

That is the only kind of “death penalty” I would support: that which occurs consequent to self-defence and the defence of others.

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