Liberia: Senate Votes to Abolish Death Penalty

— Also approves bi-annual sessions for circuit courts 

The plenary of the Liberian Senate with a unanimous vote of 17, yesterday passed a portion of the penal code to abolish the death penalty and other capital offenses.

The committee on Judiciary recommended passage of the bill for the Legislature to remove the provisions of the death penalty.

In 2005, Liberia acceded to the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at the abolition of the death penalty. However, the country has not itself abolished this form of punishment. The Country’s 1976 Penal Code lists a number of crimes punishable by death, including murder, armed robbery, mercenaries, and treason, among others. 

According to the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide database, Cornell Law School, Liberia’s last known execution was carried out by hanging in the year 2000.  Since 2005, there has been a moratorium on the death penalty but a 2008 amendment of the 1976 Penal Code reintroduced capital punishment, with some alterations to the definitions of various capital offenses.

Currently, in Liberia, 14 persons are currently under sentence of death, although a ‘de-facto’ (but unofficial) moratiorium on the death penalty still stands.

In a heated debate leading to the vote, several Senators, among them the chair of the Judiciary committee, Cllr. H. Varney G. Sherman, recalled that despite the fact that no Liberian leader has signed the death penalty since the assassinated President William R. Tolbert in 1979, it is imperative that the provision is removed from the books to avoid future embarrassment.

However, other Senators argued that if the death penalty is abolished, it will embolden criminals to commit murder without fear. The Senate decision now goes to the House of Representatives for concurrence.

Meanwhile, the Senate statutory committee on Judiciary, Human Rights, Claims and Petitions is urging plenary to pass into law, the amended law of the Liberian Code of Laws Revised to change the Terms of the Circuit Courts from Quarterly Sessions to Bi-Annual Sessions.

The committee’s report is recommending to Plenary to enact into law the revised proposed act, with the assurances that this revised proposed Act, when passed, will expedite the disposition of cases at Circuit Courts and thereby reduce the congestion of the trial dockets at the Circuit Courts.

Accordingly, the Committee pointed out that the Circuit Courts will have a longer, continuous period of actual work than the quarterly session now provided by law.  

Additionally, the Committee chaired by Grand Cape Mount County Senator, Cllr. H. Varney G. Sherman, said the longer continuous period of actual work will facilitate the disposition of more cases and thereby expedite speedy trial of cases and decongestion of the trial dockets.

However, the Judiciary Committee observed that the period of duration is six months for each of the Bi-annual Sessions (Term); which gives no time of resting period for the Circuit Judges within a period of twelve months. The time period is, however, reduced in the revised version to five months, which leaves at least one month within every twelve month period of rest for the Circuit Judges.

The new Act is amending Sections 3.8, 3.9, 3.11, 3.12 and 3.13(e) of Chapter 3 and Section 25.6 (2) of Chapter 25, of ‘Title 17’, the Judiciary Law of the Liberian Code of Law Revised to change the terms of the Circuit Courts from quarterly sessions to bi-annual sessions.