Crime and Public Policy : The Dilemma of Capital Punishment in Belize. Does it have a deterrent effect or is it simply state sponsored executed vengeance?
By: Hubert Pipersburgh
Rationality and Deterrence
Should Belize resort to capital punishment as a means to deter violent heinous crime? This is a legitimate public policy question. Crime is a central problem confronting any society. The accompanying rational strategy is usually deterrence. The goal of deterrence is to make the cost of committing crime far greater than any benefits potential criminals might derive from their acts. Thus, the theory goes that with advance knowledge of these cost rational individuals should be deterred from committing crime. Capital punishment hinges on the notion of inspiring fear on the consequences of the action.
Moreover, Deterrence is the assumption that criminals are rational. Criminals must truly believe that their actions will indeed result in an unbearable terminal cost. On closer examination, this assumption is badly flawed, because criminals are irrational beings who do not consider the potential cost of their actions to themselves to be deterred. Thus, deterrence is mostly psychological, it tries to prevent criminals from undertaking a particular heinous action by creating in their minds the fear of costly punishment.
In light of the current climate most Belizeans are inclined to cling desperately to the hope that an execution or two would intimidate our young men. The only deterrent they argue for their nihilism is state sponsored execution. Some even resort to Biblical pronouncement, “an eye for an eye.” Before we can assess the relative effectiveness of the deterrence model. We have to examine the nature and the extent of crime in Belize.
For me, I don’t have a moral dilemma with state sponsored execution per se. However, I do have concerns on such a hardline policy given the unequal nature and classicist social construct of Belizean society. Our British colonial past and experience, at its core was based on discrimination, racism, sexism, classicism, and the denial of individual rights making the legacy even more troubling.
Hence, it can easily be arbitrary and disproportionately applied against the poor working class majorities. Plus, it’s no secret that those of us that live in economically depress neighborhoods get in trouble more than those who are more well to do socially and economically.
Although there exist a high correlation between unemployment and crime it is a very complex relationship. For one thing, being poor or unemployed is not an excuse to commit crime, but it’s a fact that it will occur. For another, the less fortunate of us cannot afford the legal counsel it would take to represent us, thereby exponentially increasing the chance of us ending up in the hang man’s noose.
Moreover, studies have shown more often than not even in the advent of DNA evidence that extenuating circumstances are ever present even if we eliminate them in our haste to stand on the high moral principle that they got what they deserve.
After all, proponents asked, who is looking out for the innocent victims? That in and of itself can be a very compelling argument for capital punishment. Let’s be clear, 100% deterrence is an impossible goal. No nation in the world that have capital punishment has ever achieved this. Nor has any nation ever passed legislation that totally deterred crime and criminals. It’s surely an unattainable goal.
Structural Strain Produces Deviance
In an attempt to explain the origins of deviance to the tensions that are caused by the gap between cultural goals and the means people have available to achieve those goals. Merton argued that societies are characterized by both culture and social structure. Culture establishes goals for people in society while social structure provides (or fails to provide) the means for people to achieve those goals. According to Merton, in a well-integrated society, people use accepted and appropriate means to achieve the goals that society establishes. In this case, the goals and the means of the society are in balance. It is when the goals and means are not in balance with each other that deviance is likely to occur. This imbalance between cultural goals and structurally available means can actually lead an individual into deviant behavior.In Belize today, economic success is a goal that mostly everybody strives for. That is usually characterize by education followed by a good paying job. However, what happens when not all groups have access to this means.
The underling assumption is a structural strain that produces deviance. Thus, it begs the question are less fortunate individuals in our society most likely to experience this strain because they aim for the same goals as the rest of society, but have blocked opportunities for success? Are these individuals more likely to turn to crime and deviant behavior as way to achieve economic success? This should be of major concern to all in our society because unequal societies, with less-inclusive institutions, have greater difficulty sustaining growth.
Belize Police Department Front and Center
Frontier justice, vigilante justice, or street justice whatever name you prescribe to it is wrong and it’s a slippery slope. It’s nothing more than extra-judicial punishment that is motivated by the perceive nonexistence of law and order or dissatisfaction with justice. Does de facto state sponsored executions be the panacea for such passions?
Paradoxically, we must have the full confidence in the Belize Police Department (BPD) that they can do a reasonable job to provide safety for all citizens. The state has a fiduciary responsibility to the polity to protect us. Can we rely on our law enforcement personnel to protect and serve us judiciously?
As of now, that confidence is badly shaken as many continually questions the BPD’s handling of cases and their ineptness in doing so. Yet, we cannot abandon the BPD and leave them to their own devices. They cannot withdraw either because the law must never succumb to the daily carnage or there will be anarchy. We must provide constructive public scrutiny and oversight in the hopes that it will galvanize that organization into providing professional policing that we can all trust and believe in. If have to, I can see the necessity for capital punishment. However, I am not so sure I embrace it so willingly like most Belizeans are inclined to. My sense of social justice and Belize’s revisionist history give me serious reasons for pause.
Application of Capital Punishment
Let’s examine recent applications of state sponsored execution in Belize:
- Seymour Thomas (1981)
- Kent Bowers (1985)
- ‘Hanni” Robinson (1973)
- Gentle (1969)
- Nora Paraham, the only known woman to be executed by the state (1960s)
- Marcus Obrien (1950s.)
Seymour Thomas was Jamaican. He was convicted and hanged for the murder of a Jamaican man and his son at a farm at mile 38 on the Western Highway. It was said to be a contract killing. Thomas lay waited the man and his son and kill them. He later fled to Jamaica after the murder, but was extradited. His execution took place during the Heads of Agreement Uprising.
Mr. Evan X Hyde in an editorial contend that it was politically motivated. He believes that Mr. Price’s regime was sending a message to intimidate street opponents of the Heads of Agreement. Furthermore he maintained, Seymour Thomas was hanged because he was only an unknown visitor to Belize and nobody cared. Can proponents of capital punishment say with certainty that justice was served? Consider Kent Bowers: He is the most recent person to have been executed in Belize on June 19, 1985. On July 4, 1984, Bowers entered a restaurant in Belize City where Francis Codd and Dora Codd were hosting a private party for their 25th wedding anniversary. According to testimony heard when the case later went to trial, Bowers was asked to leave and Robert Codd escorted him to the door. A struggle ensued outside between Bowers and Codd. Bowers stabbed Codd several times. Codd died within minutes of the incident.
Bowers was arrested and charged with murder. He was convicted on October 23, 1984 and given the mandatory sentence of death by hanging. Bowers appealed his conviction to the Court of Appeals in Belize, but his arguments were rejected. Bowers’s petition for clemency was rejected by Mr. Manuel Esquivel, the Prime Minister of Belize. There are those that contend there was a racial and classicist dynamic to that murder in terms of the interaction of Codd with Bowers and in the hanging of Bowers. No one has been executed by Belize since Bowers, but capital punishment remains as a possible legal punishment in Belize.
Also notice the time frame between Bowers’ act and his execution. The point being that for deterrence to potentially work the time frame must not be far separated from the act itself. I focus on these two cases because they occurred in the 1980’s after Independence. Since, then we have seen an unimaginable proliferation of violence that has many punch drunk by the daily carnage and bloodletting. Psychopaths, robbers, murderers, and law breakers in general seemingly have free reign to terrorize the populace. Indeed, it sets off shivers among those worried that the next burglar, rapist or murderer is headed their way. There is an expectation of violence by residents.
It is within this highly charged reactionary context that the death penalty is usually discuss in Belize. As a humanist, I am concerned with the sanctity of all life. I understand very much the cries of the victims. However, the debate must be thoughtful and reflective while understanding that the severity of punishment is lost without the certainty and swiftness to have any impact on deterrence.
In short, we should solve problems by firstly articulating and placing them in compartments. Then allot solutions to them individually or as they overlap in that gradation of challenges. By this token some problems are meant to be solved by thoughtful public policy formulation and implementation. While others managed and some represent vast social failures so incapable of finding any solution should be left alone. Is capital punishment one such to be left alone?