Commuting death row sentences sends the world a positive signal

11Dec 2020
The Guardian
Commuting death row sentences sends the world a positive signal

​​​​​​​A major highlight of the commemoration of this year’s Independence Day anniversary was an alternative ceremony, if you will.

This saw President John Magufuli addressing the nation, not in marking the big day directly but by taking note of the momentous event in a different manner.

The occasion was the swearing-in of cabinet ministers and deputy ministers, where the president discussed matters relating to Independence Day – including traditional gestures like favourable consideration for convicts fit for pardon. Still, his overall gesture was far-reaching in its intensity.

The president commuted sentences for 256 death row convicts and pardoning 3,319 inmates finalizing their jail terms, a move reflecting his personal while carrying over a long-established tradition.

Previous heads of State have usually been hesitant to sign death warrants, though in a number of cases they did – a few during the first phase and a much bigger number during the second phase.

The third and fourth phases were all the more hesitant, partly owing to the global situation where there is greater exposure to the passionate debate about what to do with the death penalty.

As is evident from their number, making the commuting decision isn’t easy at all, as in most cases those convicted conducted themselves cruelly on other people, whether they were involved in physical conflict or not.

It is presumed that the High Court doesn’t mete out the death sentence unless it is fully satisfied that someone had indeed inflicted fatal bodily harm on someone else with intention to seriously hurt or kill, in legal terms, situations indicating premeditated murder.

When the judge feels that this requirement is wanting even in part, the conviction is downgraded to manslaughter; it doesn’t elicit the death penalty, but only spending the rest of life in jail.

The origin of the campaign against the death penalty lies in the fact that even when courts have no reason to doubt the evidence adduced in court, numerous cases have come up in the course of the last half a century or less where individuals have actually been put to the gallows only for errors of judgment to be discovered later.

Each case where the life of a person has been lost is hugely sensitive to the public such that where there are failings in the broader administration of justice – including the conduct of investigations and adducing evidence – errors can’t be totally eliminated.

This way the public gradually starts to worry over such death penalties.

There is another source of abhorrence for the death penalty, namely, a prior sense of clemency arising from an oft-quoted principle to the effect that ‘no one is evil knowingly’.

The principle arises from the common view of human beings being in need of self-esteem, which is tied up with how others view this or that person.

In such cases, someone reaching a step of committing murder is himself a victim of a battery of social conflicts alienating his person from the public sense of good or right.

This view applies the axiom of reduced moral responsibility in such situations, the murderer himself being a victim of passion or injustice.

The president has retained the principle of the death penalty as enshrined in the law of the land, and even in commuting 256 death row convicts he did not malign the death penalty itself as it stands there.

There are instances where a case of gruesome murder irritates the public, so the president must retain his options – which he has aptly done

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