Cruel and Unusual Part 1
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on August 6 2014
Two recent news reports caught my eye and stimulated me to re-examine the issues relating to capital punishment.
Couple from a Country Beginning with “U”
At the Colombo High Court on July 15 2014, Trial-at-Bar Judges Devika de Livera Tennakoon and Wimal Nambuwasam sentenced to death a couple found guilty of a double murder committed in 2010. Mashour Eugene and Yanna Brishyana murdered Jason, a six-year-old child, and a housemaid, Daisy Manohari, at Nawala on February 23, 2010. Some reports describe the guilty pair as Ukrainian; others say they are from Uzbekistan.
The killings took place at the Galpotta Road home of Victoria Kim, who had been Eugene’s partner in a call girl business, but she later became his competitor and rival. He had visited her on February 21 to try to arrange a truce. This was not successful. He returned unexpectedly two days later while Victoria was getting Jason ready for school. Jason tried to call his father on his mother’s mobile phone. In trying to get the phone from the child, Eugene hit him several times and inflicted stab wounds. Victoria and Daisy wrestled with Eugene. Jason died immediately. Victoria was stabbed in her stomach and Daisy was dragged into the bathroom and stabbed to death. Yanna Brishyana, was outside in a three-wheeler with two gallons of petrol which she had bought at a filling station in Nugegoda. The plan was to set fire to the bodies.
When the death sentence was read out, sex worker Brishyana, who claims to be the mother of an eight-year-old child, appealed to the court to have her executed immediately.
Long Time A-Dying
The second news item was about an execution in the USA. Joseph Wood was executed in the state prison in Florence, Arizona, on Wednesday July 23 2014. It was a long drawn out business. Wood was sentenced to death in 1989 for murdering his girl friend and her father. After waiting a quarter of a century, Wood had to wait a little longer to die. At 1.52pm, the lethal drugs began coursing through the tubes leading to a vein in his arm. Ten minutes later witnesses reported seeing his jaw drop and his chest start to heave as his lungs battled for air more than 600 times. He was finally declared dead at 3.50 pm. Executions by lethal injection are meant to take no more than 20 minutes, not one hour and fifty-seven minutes. This was the third badly botched execution this year.
Of the 193 independent states that are UN members, 51 per cent have abolished the death penalty. Four per cent retain it for some exceptional crimes and 25 per cent permit its use for ordinary crimes, but have not used it for at least ten years. Some, such as Sri Lanka, have a policy or established practice of not carrying out executions, and 20 per cent of UN members maintain the death penalty in both law and practice.
For and Against
My own stance on capital punishment has changed. I made a feeble attempt at writing a novel when I was 15. Inspired by news coverage of crowds protesting outside prisons during executions, the subject was murderers getting more sympathy than victims. My views had changed by the time I was in the sixth form, to the extent that I fell out with my girl friend when we attended a debate on capital punishment at Kings School, Gloucester Cathedral. She was for capital punishment and I was irritated that she could not see the obvious logic of the arguments against it. Henry VIII founded Kings School. Henry used capital punishment as a substitute for marriage guidance counselling.
Death Penalty in Sri Lanka
The death penalty is still part of the Sri Lankan penal code. Some reference sites say the last execution was in 1977, others say 1976. Bogambara Prison in Kandy was the go-to place for judicial murder. It had gallows where three could be killed at the same time. HG Dharmadasa was the Superintendent at the prison in the 70s. He says he had the “misfortune” to officiate at the last few executions. Mr Dharmadasa is adamant that the last to be hanged was DJ Siripala alias Maru Sira in 1975. Maru Sira may actually have been already dead when they hanged him, as he was limp and unconscious when they took him from his cell. After the body was exhumed his spinal cord was found not to be fractured and excessive traces of drugs were found in his system. The USA does not have a monopoly on botched executions.
Bogambara Prison closed on 1 January 2014 and is now open to the public. There is speculation that it might be turned into a boutique hotel.
Accurate figures are hard to come by, but it seems there are at least 405 convicts in Sri Lanka on “death row”. The Sri Lankan state still likes to have a hangman available, just in case. Unfortunately, the Prisons Department is having trouble filling the post. In March 2014, a new appointee had had second thoughts. Chandrarathna Pallegama, commissioner general of prisons said: “we gave him one week’s training, but he resigned after seeing the gallows.” The new hangman, the third most qualified from 176 applicants, was appointed after two hangmen chosen last year failed to show up for work.
I recall reading reports of a cabinet meeting when Ranil Wickremasinghe was prime minister. The then minister for power and energy suggested that the noose be replaced by the electric chair. Ranil quipped: “But with all these power cuts, can you guarantee that there will be electricity available?”
Many people argue that the death penalty should be implemented because of the rise in child abuse, rapes, murders, and drug trafficking. I recall reading an editorial in a national newspaper calling for public executions of child molesters.
Considering that the Sri Lankan constitution gives a special place to Buddhism, it is more than a little odd that the death penalty remains on the statute book and that some self-proclaimed Buddhists demand that it be used. What happened to panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami?
According to a study published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, eighty-eight percent of the leading criminologists in the US do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to homicide. Similarly, 87% of the criminologists believe that abolition of the death penalty would not have any significant effect on murder rates. In addition, 75% of the respondents agree, “debates about the death penalty distract Congress and state legislatures from focusing on real solutions to crime problems.”
US politicians in favour of abolition point to the fact that death-penalty states (which are mostly in the south) have higher murder rates than non-death-penalty states (many of which are in the northeast).