Timothy Evans, Liu Bing-lang, Mahmood Hussein Mattan, Aleksandr Kravchenko, Shareef Cousin, Vicente Benavides, Sakae Menda, Debra Milke, Nie Shubin – the list of names can continue; and there are probably hundreds of others whose names we will never know.
These are innocent people from around the world, accused and convicted of crimes they did not commit. They received the death penalty.
Some of them were executed. Others spent years if not decades on death row. But then, one day, new evidence emerged which proved them innocent; or an appeal judgement decided that the initial evidence that led to their conviction was insufficient.
The fate of these men and women is a testimony to the importance of legal representation and a fair trial. Some of them might have avoided spending years on death row innocently if they had better lawyers. Some might have received limited sentences if they had received better legal advice. But the stories of these men and women are also a reminder that no legal system is ever going to be perfect enough to ensure that all convictions are correct. Some evidence that proved the accused’s innocence emerged only years if not decades after the trial and even the world’s best lawyers would not have been able to defend the accused without these pieces of evidence.
The World Day against Death Penalty on today on October 10 is an opportunity to think about the fate of people such as those listed above. Today is also an invitation to think about the death penalty more generally. As an individual, in reaction to a horrible crime that is committed, we might feel the urge to seek revenge. To do the same – or even worse than what the perpetrator has done to the victim. Surely, it will not undo the crime, and in case of murder, will not bring back the loved one. However, there seems to be the expectation, that for those affected by the crime, it will help to ease the pain and come to terms with the traumatic experience. I leave it to psychologists to explain if this is truly the case or not.
Instead, I would like to argue that as a society, we need to go beyond the immediate emotional reaction, which might call for revenge. As members and leaders of society, we need to think about the future and more specifically about how to prevent similar acts happening again. Here, the evidence is clear: The death penalty, as any other harsh punishment, does not have a deterrent effect. Potential criminals do not do cost-benefit calculations between the punishment and the penalty. Only a high likelihood of getting caught and punished deters people from premeditated crimes.
What this means is that in order to reduce the number of murders or rapes, we need to ensure that crimes get reported; that the police conduct a proper investigation; that the courts operate in a timely and fair manner to ensure that the right person is punished and legal loopholes and corruption, which allow certain people to evade punishment, are eradicated. This requires a lot of work, to change existing systems and practice, to build capacity and increase resources.
The European Union, through its development cooperation, is helping Pakistan strengthen rule of law in the country, not only to punish perpetrators, but also to ultimately prevent crimes and thereby to make life for all Pakistanis safer and free from fear.
At the end of 2019, a majority of the world’s states (106 countries) had abolished the death penalty in law for all crimes, and more than 70 percent (142 countries) had abolished the death penalty in law or practice. The discussion that the World Day against the Death Penalty invites us to engage in is thus still highly relevant in more than 50 countries of the world, including in Pakistan.
The writer is the Ambassador of the European Union to Pakistan.