A just choice
- August 1, 2015
By the time this article hits the press, the debate over the hanging of Yakub Memon would have been replaced with another outrage. But I write this with the hope that those who endorsed death penalty for him, having achieved the goal, perhaps will give a moment to reflect.
In the past few weeks, the hanging of Yakub Memon filled a lot of time and space. As it should have. While a man was executed, a high price to pay for any change, it forced us yet again to look at the core issue of death penalty. I had written about the futility of this barbaric law, over two years ago, when Kasab, the terrorist, was going to be hanged. Much of the response was vicious and misdirected since my argument was against death penalty per se and not about Kasab.
Recently, a friend asked me if the Yale World Fellowship that I did last year, was at all useful. I believe the worth of most experiences is often intangible and tend to pop up at the most unexpected of times. One that recently did, was that of a lecture by Thomas Ullman, a public defender. He heads an organisation that only takes up defense cases and, by choice, never prosecutes. He shared a story that has stayed with me since. It was about Ronald Cotton, a young black American, who was accused of raping a 22-year-old girl. His conviction was largely based on identification of the victim, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino. Ronald appealed several times, but was unsuccessful in overturning his conviction. But after more than ten years, in 1995, he was officially pardoned as the DNA testing finally proved that he was not the rapist.
This is not where the story ends. Jennifer and Ronald met for the first time after his exoneration. She states, “I just started to sob. I looked at him and I said, ‘If I spent every minute of every hour of every day for the rest of my life telling you that I’m sorry, can you ever forgive me?’ He started to cry and said, ‘Jennifer, I forgave you years ago.'”
Jennifer and Ronald are now good friends and travel around America to spread the word about wrongful convictions and reforms that can prevent future injustice. For those who argue that such anecdotes are moving, but not convincing, here are some reliable facts. In the last decade, several cases of wrongful execution came up because of DNA evidence in the US. According to a recent study, the murder rate has declined consistently in India over the last 20 years despite the slowdown in the execution of death sentences. India has been restrained in death penalty, (hanged three men since 2004) compared with scores that have been executed in the United States, China or Saudi Arabia. The report also states that capital punishment is applied disproportionately to the poor and the marginalised. Today, hundreds remain on death row, fearing their fate, as the ‘rarest of rare’ is being increasingly invoked. When will we stop? Does a dead Yakub Memon make us feel any safer?
While two-thirds of the countries in the world have abolished capital punishment, after a decade of restraint, India now seems to have turned into the other direction, with several hangings being approved. Retributive justice—an eye for an eye—has no place in the civilised world. You may then say what is the solution? Many. Going to the root of the problem, prevention, higher rate of conviction, rehabilitation, and the most tangible and innovative one that I read recently about, is called “restorative justice”. It is based on the idea of victim–offender dialogue, defying the traditional justice system and it has shown amazing results. A pioneer in this field is Sujatha Baliga, an American of Indian origin, a public defender and now a strong advocate of restorative practices.Are we ready to explore such options or are we going to be caught in the endless cycle of crime and punishment? Today, we must make a just choice.