To hang or not to hang has been a topic in Guyana, the Caribbean and much of the free world for several decades. It became a hot debate in Guyana following the visit of Navi Pillay, Commissioner of the International Commission against the Death Penalty and her discussions with government officials and a workshop with judges and magistrates. The commission is calling on the Guyana government to remove the death penalty from the statute books, and President David Granger responded that he would be guided by the decision taken by lawmakers and in the final analysis from all Guyanese by way of referendum.
I am not much in favour of the death penalty but in the 1990s while I was Chief Prosecutor (acting DPP) in St Vincent I prosecuted several murder cases. Three persons in two cases were convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. Although I won the cases, I was not at all happy that they were sentenced to death by hanging. The judge had no choice but to impose the mandatory death sentence. I had a restless night when the first one ‒ a 21-year-old ‒ was sentenced. I later made a recommendation to the Mercy Committee for the death sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment. All three were spared the hangman’s noose.
As a matter of fact, although the death penalty remains on the statute books in most Caribbean Community states, there has been no execution for the past two decades in the region. Barbados removed capital punishment a few years ago and there is no death penalty in the dependent states of Anguilla, British Virgin Islands, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos, Cayman Islands and Bermuda; however, Jamaica recently passed legislation retaining the death penalty. Statistics show that 105 countries which are members of the United Nations have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, but six retain it for exceptional or special circumstances. Perhaps I should state that 47 countries which have retained it have not used it for at least 10 years.
Muslim countries which abide by Sharia law prescribe various forms of capital punishment for certain offences, including decapitation, stoning and execution by firing squad. China also imposes the death penalty as well as several states in the US.
If the Guyana government decides to deal with the issue by way of a referendum, which is a very expensive exercise, they should seek to amend the constitution to deal with a few burning issues, including the appointment of Chancellor and Chief Justice.