Re-examine validity of the death penalty

His Holiness Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Uganda in November 2015. One thing most Ugandans do not know about him is that he supports the abolition of the death penalty. On March 20, His Holiness wrote a letter to the International Commission against the Death Penalty (ICDP) on the matter. As an individual who supports the abolition of the death penalty, I wanted to highlight some of the arguments His Holiness put forward in the letter.
In his letter to the ICDP, His Holiness argued that the death penalty undermines the purpose of punishment. Punishment has five purposes namely: retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, reconciliation and restorative justice. The death penalty solely serves a purpose of retribution as vengeance for the crime that was committed and undermines the wholesome purpose of punishment. As His Holiness rightly states, “It does not render justice to the victims, but rather foments revenge”. If the death penalty is replaced with long-term imprisonment, the offender is able to appreciate the wholesome purpose of punishment by participating in the rehabilitative, reconciliation and restorative aspect. With regard to the second purpose – deterrence – proponents of the death penalty have often argued that the death penalty deters crime. There has, however, been no empirical evidence to support this argument. In 2009, Micheal L. Radelet and Traci L. Lacock published the results of their study that revealed 88 per cent of leading criminologists believed that the death penalty does not have a greater deterrent effect than long-term imprisonment.
Our lawmakers should, therefore, consider replacing the death penalty with long-term imprisonment. Imposition of the death penalty negates the other three purposes of punishment – rehabilitation, reconciliation and restorative justice. Indeed, punishment in Uganda has traditionally focused on retribution and deterrence. More emphasis should be put on rehabilitation, reconciliation and restorative justice.
Rehabilitation is aimed at reforming the offender to prevent recidivism. Interactions with the Uganda Prisons Service have revealed that the rate of recidivism is very low especially for capital offenders. Article 126(2) (d) of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, 1995 promotes reconciliation between parties in both civil and criminal cases, which would be curtailed by the death penalty. The aim of reconciliation and restorative justice is to bring the offender and victim together to foster healing.
His Holiness further argued in his letter to the ICDP that “the death penalty loses all legitimacy due to the defective selectivity of the criminal justice system and in the face of the possibility of judicial error.” This is true because policing and judicial systems around the world are not infallible.
For instance, on December 17, 2004, the High Court of Nakawa sentenced Patrick Lwanga Zizinga to death for the murder of his alleged wife. Yet in fact, his wife at the time, Annet Nakibuuka, was still alive and Zizinga had no connection to the deceased, Annet Nakiwala.
During Zizinga’s mitigation hearing in 2013, the court held that there was no evidence that he participated in the murder and it remained questionable as to who committed the murder. Zizinga was, therefore, released but not after spending 11 years and three months in prison with eight and a half on death row.
If Uganda actively executed people like China or Iraq, an innocent man would have been killed. As the His Holiness rightly argued in his letter to the ICDP, “human justice is imperfect and the failure to recognise its fallibility can transform it into a source of injustice.”
In conclusion, the validity of the death penalty in our penal laws needs to be re-examined. This is not only because it has the potential to affect innocent people, but it also undermines the purpose of punishment.
Instead, efforts should be geared to ensure that our prisons are rehabilitative and foster full re-integration of offenders into society.
Ms Komuhangi is a lawyer and human rights activist.


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