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Seetahal right, free reformed murderers
Posted: Wednesday, November 6, 2002

by Shelagh Simmons

We support Independent Senator Dana Seetahal's recent call for the release of convicted murderers who are no longer deemed to be a threat to society.

In supporting Senator Seetahal, we wish to stress that we do not seek to diminish the seriousness of the crime of murder-depriving someone of their life is the worst crime imaginable-its impact on those who have lost loved ones to violence, or on the wider society.

Nor do we advocate freeing anyone who could still pose a danger.

However, it must be recognised that not all murders are the same, and it therefore follows that not all murderers are the same either. Taking life in the heat of the moment-perhaps under intense provocation-and acting in a way that is completely out of character, with no previous history of violence, cannot equate, for example, to cold-blooded, calculated contract killing/s.

That is precisely why the current law of Trinidad and Tobago-which sanctions the mandatory death sentence regardless of the circumstances of the offence-breaches international standards for the application of capital punishment, and why the country was ordered by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to reform it.

As to the role of the Advisory Board on the Power of Pardon (Mercy Committee), Senator Seetahal's complaints about the secrecy in which its operations have always been shrouded demonstrate why the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council's September 2000 Neville Lewis ruling-giving rights in clemency hearings-was so important.

Of course, the taking of life must not be treated lightly, and perpetrators must be punished. But a balance has to be struck between the two objectives of punishment and rehabilitation. After serving a lengthy prison term-which, despite popular opinion, is no soft option-there are those who have reformed and are willing and able to make a positive contribution to society. It is difficult to see what useful purpose could be served by their continued incarceration. And although this, too, is not a popular view, even those who have murdered casually and in cold blood have the capacity to change.

As Senator Seetahal points out, prisoners are entitled to a regular review of their cases. But it must be as part of a properly structured, transparent process with decisions being made objectively and not at the whim of individual prison officers, as has sometimes been claimed in the past. And public protection must always be the overriding consideration.

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