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Dame Joan ‘fundamentally’ opposed to death penalty

Although she was once a proponent of capital punishment, past President of the Court of Appeal Dame Joan Sawyer said she has not supported state-sanctioned execution for quite some time.

“As a teenager I was against it. As a young adult I was for it. As a mature adult I cannot subscribe to it,”Dame Joan told The Nassau Guardian in an exclusive interview earlier this week.”The death penalty is a final decision on somebody’s life. Our definition of murder is the deliberate taking of a human life without any excuse. So when a judge passes the death penalty, what is he doing?”

Asked if her opposition to the death penalty was a fundamental belief, Dame Joan said: “It is.”

Dame Joan served as Court of Appeal president since 2001, up to that time serving as chief justice of the Supreme Court, a post to which she was appointed in 1996.

She retired yesterday. Former Supreme Court Senior Justice Anita Allen takes the post today.

As Dame Joan sat down to reflect on her legal career earlier this week, the death penalty came up.

And in addition to expressing her blanket opposition to it for the reason mentioned earlier, she said she has never been satisfied that the system of detection in The Bahams is so foolproof as to not be mistaken in the identity of a person who perpetrated a crime.”And to me, to kill one innocent man for a crime he didn’t commit is so serious a crime that I wouldn’t want to be party to it.”

Though there are dozens of men on death row at Her Majesty’s Prison, there have been no executions in The Bahamas since David Mitchell, 27, was hanged in January, 2000.

The main reason is the 2006 Privy Council ruling that struck down mandatory death sentences for murder convictions.

Many of the men sentenced to death prior to and after 2006 have not exhausted their appeals.

The Privy Council’s 1993 ruling, regarding a pair of death sentences handed down in Jamaica, that it is cruel and unusual punishment for the state to execute a man sentenced to die more than five years after his sentence, has also prevented many executions.

Notwithstanding these mitigating factors, there have been consistent calls from many in the religious community to have the death penalty applied more swiftly.

Dame Joan said that even if the way was clear for hangings to resume, her religious beliefs are not so inclined.

“I’ve heard preachers talk about’bring back the death penalty’and they quote the Bible,”she said.”But there’s a passage in(the book of)Genesis that they don’t seem to remember.”

She was referencing the biblical story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4, in which Cain killed his brother Abel on his family’s land.

“And he killed him out of jealousy,”she said.”And when God asks him’Where is your brother?’. He says ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ And God says ‘What have you done? Your brother Abel’s blood cries to me from the ground’.”

At that point, Dame Joan recalled, God banished Cain from the land.

“And Cain says ‘No don’t send me away because if you send me away whoever sees me will slay me’,” she said.”And God says ‘Whoever slays you will be seven times as accursed as you’.”

The story, she believes, illustrates God’s intention for mankind to show mercy toward those that have killed others.

Despite her reservations, Dame Joan sentenced people to die when she sat on the bench of the Supreme Court before moving to the Court of Appeal, mainly because she had no choice.

“My difficulty is that I also swear to be governed by the law,” she said.

“So when the jury convicted a man of murder as it was when I was a trial judge the law at that point in the common law was that there was a mandatory death sentence. You didn’t have a choice, you passed it once he was convicted of murder.

“It was the only way I could pass it, because I could always find as a human being some little (example) of exigency if I had to leave it to my discretion. It’s difficult to take another man’s life.”

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