Sun | Feb 25, 2024

Gordon Robinson: Hung up on hanging

Published:Thursday | May 5, 2016 | 12:00 AMGordon Robinson
Prime Minister Andrew Holness (second left) and National Security Minister Robert Montague visited Bryden Street in east Kingston to meet the relatives of slain Woman Corporal Judith Williams.


How long did it take this new Government to retreat to hyperbolic distraction like "hang 'em high!" as crime-fighting policy? Two minutes?

Ah, bwoy! In developed countries, the death-penalty issue is a straightforward one. It's not so simple in Jamaica. Personally, I'm inflexibly against the death penalty for two mainly spiritual reasons.

The less important of the two reasons is a practical one in that Jamaica's investigative and forensic capabilities are so pathetic that, statistically, it seems certain that at least a quarter of persons convicted and hanged would be innocent at least of the specific crime for which they're hanged. Yet we still operate under a system of law that proposes it's better for 1,000 guilty men to go free than one innocent man convicted.

As an enthusiastic first-year law student, I recall studying the 1960s case of R v Solomon, the bloodthirsty gardener convicted for the murder of his mistress (no, not that kind of mistress) and her family. The story going the rounds of the law students' grapevine at the time was that Solomon spoke not a word at his trial and, after he was hanged, it was discovered that the culprit was his twin brother. That story has, of course, been proven to be apocryphal, especially in light of an excellent 2012 report by Sybil Hibbert ('Renford Solomon: a serial killer with a heart of stone') spoiled for those of us still affected by that salacious grapevine only by the fact that it was published on April Fools' Day.

It turns out Solomon had no twin; was turned in by his mother and brother; was, in fact, guilty as sin; and hanged himself in his cell the day before he was to have been executed. Still, the grapevine story has its philosophical uses, and we should pray for any unfortunate soul convicted of capital murder by our system of 'justice' that has incompetence, laziness and corruption as its watchwords.

But the most important philosophical reason to oppose capital punishment is rooted in Christianity. Christianity preaches (and true Christians should believe) because Christ defeated sin and death, those who have faith in him are eternally alive spiritually (John 11:25-26: "I am the resurrection and the life: he that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever lives and believes in me shall never die."). According to Christianity, physical death is the separation of the soul from the body and is the beginning of eternal life in the presence of God.

If theologians would only become Gleaner columnists accustomed to word-count restrictions, they would simply translate all the above into "death is true believers' reward". Very few so-called Christians are true believers because they all want to go to 'Heaven' but would prefer skipping the dying part. Even pastors carry guns in order to keep themselves from this eternal reward for as long as possible.

If death is the eternal reward, why're we offering this reward to murderers? Why don't we punish them in THIS LIFE for the worst of crimes against THIS LIFE? Spiritually speaking, loss of freedom is far worse than loss of life. Ask any soldier. Ask Nelson Mandela. Ask Johnny Cash:

I hear the train a comin'.

It's rolling round the bend

And I ain't seen the sunshine

since I don't know when.

I'm stuck in Folsom prison

and time keeps draggin' on.

But that train keeps a rollin'

on down to San Antone ... .

If only we could see beyond our blind rage and thirst for revenge, we'd understand the majority of these cold-blooded murderers value NO LIFE AT ALL, least of all their own; are long ago resigned to dying young so long as they can live 'big'; and don't fear the death penalty.

This is why the issue is a simple one in developed nations. Don't hasten them to their eternal reward. Lock them up and keep them locked up. Let them suffer the ups and downs (literally) of prison life. Force them to suffer their friends seeing them live 'small' for a long, long time. Give them time to think about what they've done and truly regret and repent.

When I was just a baby

my mama told me, son,

always be a good boy,

don't ever play with guns.

But I shot a man in Reno

just to watch him die.

When I hear that whistle blowing,

I hang my head and cry ... .

In Jamaica, it's just not so simple. Our prisons, mirroring the rest of society, offer master's degrees in criminality and operate as cesspools of corruption. Locking up cold-blooded murderers for extended periods, even for life, only permits them to continue or escalate their criminal activities within and without the prison walls. Release on parole or after lengthy sentences only guarantees more murders at the hands of most of those released.

There's a profound-sounding modern argument against capital punishment that academics love to trot out: that there's no evidence capital punishment is a deterrent. An excellent example of that is Senator Mark Golding, who fumbled and fudged when asked, on radio, by Patria-Kaye Aarons: "If hanging isn't a deterrent to murder, why would ANY punishment be a deterrent to ANY crime?" - and never addressed the excellent question.

The truth is, Jamaica, in its current crime-ridden status, needs the incontrovertibly deterrent effect of capital punishment. You see, capital punishment may not be a deterrent to society as a whole, but it unerringly deters the executed convict from committing any further murders. In Jamaica, capital punishment results in one less cold-blooded murderer in society (or in communication with cohorts from behind bars) for our underequipped, undertrained and undermanned police force to tackle. If our prisons weren't concrete sieves and contained any halfway decent rehabilitation programmes, perhaps we could afford to abolish capital punishment based on my spiritual arguments. Maybe then, men would care about loss of freedom. Maybe then, men would mend their ways.

I bet there's rich folks eating

in a fancy dining car

They're probably drinkin' coffee

and smoking big cigars.

Well, I know I had it coming,

I know I can't be free

But those people keep a movin'

and that's what tortures me ... .

The main purpose of prison is rehabilitation. If a nation runs prisons without serious, properly equipped rehabilitation programmes run by qualified individuals (including at least high-school classes and technical/vocational training), thus providing options to recidivism, it might as well hang 'em high. All of 'em - not just the murderers. Because, in those prisons, persons convicted of lesser crimes and persons wrongly convicted may enter as low-level criminals/disgruntled citizens and exit as potential murderers. The absence of hope is bad. The forcible theft of hope is unforgivable.

Well, if they freed me from this prison;

If that railroad train was mine

I bet I'd move it on

a little farther down the line

Far from Folsom prison,

that's where I want to stay

and I'd let that lonesome whistle

blow my blues away ... .

In the mid-1960s, country music legend Johnny Cash's long, successful career was in a prolonged slump. In 1955, Cash recorded Folsom Prison Blues, which inspired him to record a live album inside Folsom Prison with the inmates as the audience. Columbia Records pooh-poohed the idea, but, in 1967, with a change of personnel at Columbia and Johnny's career needing help, the concept was revisited. The result was Johnny Cash Live at Folsom Prison, one of his most successful albums eventually selling more than three million copies, despite negligible record company promotion.

After Robert F. Kennedy's assassination, Columbia insisted, over Johnny's protests, on remixing the song and excluding the line "But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die," so those of us vinyl fanatics with the original album have a rare collectors' item classic.

Johnny Cash, a great friend of Jamaica who kept a residence here and whose children practically grew up in Montego Bay, is the only artiste inducted into the Country Music, Rock and Roll and Songwriters' Halls of Fame.

Peace and love.

- Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to