Of late voices have been heard for the government to re-establish the Death Penalty for rapists. The first call came from the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL). Next, a Reverend, the National Orator of the July 26, 2020 Independence Day celebration, added his voice. Then we soon heard that President Weah has given his “unflinching support for capital punishment for those violating minors”. And quickly the opposition ANC leader jumped on the opportunity to “blast” the government on its handling of rape cases among other issues. Well, he was also very short of solutions, and neither did he manifest any opposition to the use of the Death Penalty. Or this is an election season, and anything may be good for the ears.
But the application of the Capital Punishment is not a play-play or cheap political talk. It is a very important, sensitive national issue that has many unsuspected moral, social and political ramifications – not only for the national leadership, but also the nation as a whole. Imagine, the President – be he/she an imperial democrat, dictator, tyrant, autocrat, etc (and we have had such potentates in the past) – has an absolute power to sign the death of a citizen. And mind you, our nation has an over 80% illiterate population, poor and does not even understand the functioning of the justice system. This reality has created the perennial travesty of justice since the founding of our Republic in 1847. A justice system serving only the interest of the ruling class in cohort with a minute educated minority.
This fact was high on my mind when I published the essay: “Liberian Criminal Justice System: In Retrospect and Reforms” at the inception of the Sirleaf government in 2006. In that essay, I recommended that both the Capital and Corporal Punishments be abolished and inscribed into our constitution as such. First, because criminological studies have shown that these barbaric punishments since the medieval time have no deterrence effect. And truly, if the Death Penalty had any effect, then there should not be so much mass murders in the United States – the only Western power where this penalty has been applied unabated. And second, I have the deepest conviction that the rampant applications of both punishments under the Tolbert and Doe administrations was a politically motivated exercise rather than any intent to combat crime.
On this point, I applaud the effort of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf not to have applied the Capital and Corporal Punishments during her twelve years at the helm of power. Unfortunately, she did not abolish them; instead, the 1976 Penal Code was amended to add Death Penalty or Life Imprisonment without the possibility of parole to be imposed on an offender who, during the commission of the crimes of terrorism or hijacking or armed robbery, causes the death of his victim.
Now, I am fully aware that a rape – especially on minors – is among the most heinous crimes and certainly does merit the harshest punishment in the Penal Code. Notwithstanding, I am vehemently against the re-introducing of the Capital Punishment in Liberia. What is more, in a country still with deep scars of the civil war, weak political system, institutions, judiciary and the rest – we would be sending the wrong signal to the international community. Further, it will destabilize more the dispensation of justice and psychological impact the population.
For these reasons and more to follow, I would urge the government to look into the second option of the amended 1976 Penal Code mentioned –if no previous legislations already on rape – so that Life Imprisonment without the possibility of parole to be imposed on an offender convicted of rape. Honestly, for me the Capital Punishment depicts a cruel, brutal, savage and non-forgiven society. And a “Christian nation and God fearing people” out to be forgiven and magnanimous.
Having that in mind, I will now add a brief synopsis of my personal encounter with the Capital Punishment, hoping that it will aid the President in his reflection and also our refresh memories and awaken some conscience.
My Professional/Personal Experience with the Capital Punishment
Having already recounted a small portion of my professional adventures in a previous article, here is another aspect briefly traced. I joined the staff of the Division of Rehabilitation, Ministry of Justice, in the late 1970s, not having the slightest idea that the Division had the supervising role in the application of the Death Penalty. And needless to mention that the entire staff of the Division were all young professionals, recruited mainly to implement the modern prison reforms initiated by the government, and not to oversee public executions. Perhaps, though, we must have been also too young, career conscientious only and politically naïve.
The reality, President Tolbert (1971– 1980) was also a Reverend. Immediately after taking power on July 23rd, 1971, he begun public executions on November 19th, 1971 – something totally foreign then to Liberia – even though the Death Penalty was stipulated in the penal code. By the time I joined the Division there had already been seven (7) executions, and during my stay we supervised nine (9) more executions up to April 12, 1980. This brings the total number of executions to sixteen (16) during the entire Tolbert administration. Additionally, there were also many brutal public flogging scenes of juvenile delinquents. Well, at the end President Tolbert himself was also executed. Thus the axiom: violence has the propensity to produce violence.
The Doe regime (1980-1990) had the identical trajectory as its predecessor, though with a great difference in the number of executions and the methods of their applications. From what is already known the methods went from summery executions by firing squad to bayonet, bludgeon and the official gallows. While it may be impossible to give the exact figures of these summary executions, it is estimated that between 30 to 40 soldiers and civilians must have lost their lives in the process of the military coup on April 12, 1980; then April 17, 1980, first firing squad: three (3) soldiers and one (1) civilian; April 22, 1980, second firing squad: thirteen (13) former government officials; March 6, 1981, seven (7) convicted long serving murderers were hanged at the Monrovia Central Prison to mark the first anniversary of the military coup d’état; August 1981, General Thomas Weh Syen and four (4) other PRC members were shot and bludgeoned in prison for an alleged plot against Doe; February 3, 1982, third firing squad: four (4) army lieutenants who ambushed a military vehicle and killed three of their four fellow officers transporting $53,203.75 to pay an army battalion in the Gbama District.., and the list could continue infinitely.
And the same cause produced the same effect for President Doe; thus adding yet another inglorious chapter to our socio-political history.
The excessive applications of both the Capital and Corporal Punishments under the Tolbert and Doe administrations (though I did not served in the Doe administration; took exit just few months after the military coup), and my own profound professional and personal conviction that both punishments were futile and socially, politically toxic – led me to undertake a research paper: “Capital and Corporal Punishments in Liberia (1971-1985)” (see: Liberia-Forum, Vol.3, N°5, Liberia Working Group, 1987, pp. 45-59, West Germany).
The public executions were supposedly launched by President Tolbert to deter the increasing criminality. But when the executions are tallied with the three most intense political periods, one quickly sees the correlation that they were politically motivated.
First, 1971 (4 executions) – President Tolbert took power under an uncertain political situation and sensed the wary population had no confidence in him. Thus the executions were intended to put the fear of God in the people and legitimize his power. Second, 1974 (3 executions) – the “progressives” had the President’s feet to the fire to speed up the long awaited political reforms. This period culminated to the tragic death of the President’s brother, Steve Tolbert, (the Minister of Finance) in a plane crash the following year, 1975. And third, 1978/79 (9 executions – two (2) on Oct.13, 1978, were simply the prelude for the seven others know as the “ritualistic killers”, executed on Feb. 16, 1979) – the social and political tension in the country was at a boiling point. The executed – Allen Yancy, James Anderson et al were high profile political figures of Maryland county; their orchestrated elimination was a premeditated decapitation of the ruling settler class leadership of the county. Thus it was not surprising that these executions would immediately unleash the unprecedented violent “Rice Riot” of April 14, 1979, followed by the April 12, 1980 bloody military coup d’état – dethroning the entire ruling settler class leadership of Liberia.
Then comes President Doe, putting an entire government before a firing squad for “rampant corruption.” But looking at our situation since, President Tolbert, in effect, was an angel. Because not only did we end up with a civil war that took us more than forty years backward, but also our country is classed among the most corrupt nations of the world.
That said, there were also other interesting revelations. The Death Penalty is not only extremely futile with a socio-political impact, but it also has an important, subtle psychological impact on the Judiciary, those in direct contact with the execution and the spectators to be supposedly deterred.
For the Judiciary, after the executions of Feb. 16, 1979, I discovered the courts manifested their discontent against the Death Penalty in three different manners: (a) deliberate delay of trials and appeals in murder cases, (b) outright acquittals, and (c) back-door arrangements or bribes to reduce murder charges to lesser offences.
The sad result – in the last days of the Tolbert administration the population perceived also the Judiciary as the most corrupt in that the controversial murder cases were systematically acquitted or reduced to lesser offences (ex. Edward Gberi and Leonard Bailey murder cases).
Concerning those in direct contact with the execution of the Death Penalty such as the prison administration and staff of the Rehab Division – the stress was awesome, unbearable and most demoralizing – the unending preparations leading to the D-Day, extra security measures and the rest. For example, there was a novelty beginning the two executions in 1978. One of the convicted murderers was transferred from the Monrovia Central Prison to Voinjama (Lofa) for execution, and an open-air gallows had to be built quickly for that purpose. For the seven “ritualistic killers” there was an extreme tense security protocol from the moment the Supreme Court confirmed the judgment of a death sentence, and all sort of rumours abounded. The inmates were hurriedly transferred by road from Harper, Maryland, to Monrovia Central Prison (I was on that trip after having flown to Harper the same day with Justice Minister Bright for the reading of the Supreme Court final verdict at the Harper court. The Minister thought I was crazy for taking the risk, but I also thought the experience had worth the risk). Later, for the execution the convicts were repatriated back to Harper under the escort of a special task force military commandos. An enormous open-air gallows was hastily built for this special public entertainment. I was in full attendance. But what these executions show was seemingly an effort by the President to decentralize the process; so that a convicted murderer be executed in the county where the crime was committed in order to impact the population. But the result was the same – taking executions to the people tarnished more the image of the President.
Now let us look at the hangman. This man, always in fear for his life, remained in hiding before and after the execution – a sort of a phantom on government payroll only to perform legal killings. Unbelievable. But this weird attitude of the hangman arose my curiosity to inquire on the conditions surrounding the first execution in 1971. I was told that there was no paid hangman then; so the President ordered that a longest serving inmate be used against his immediate freedom. Continuing, I was eager to know the whereabouts of this first voluntary inmate hangman. I was told that he became a vagabond, rejected by his family and friends and later died on the sidewalk. Pity, poor man. This sorrowful story caused the government to abandon the practice of using the longest serving inmates as hangmen.
But referring further to attitude that of President Tolbert was even more surprising. He invited the convicted murderers to the Executive Mansion for the signing ceremony of their Death Warrants. Isn’t it heartless? I took the opportunity to accompany the first two murderers to this unusual occasion in 1978. First, the President kneeled and prayed; then counselled the convicts and signed the warrants. As we took leave, one of the inmates, brave, asked the President for some money for them to buy something good to eat before the execution. The President put his hand in pocket and took out few dollars and gave that to them. Believe me, the moment was unreal and tragic at the same time as the second convict, fear to death, was trembling and could hardly stand on his feet.
And the spectators, well, they always came in droves, awaiting anxiously to rush into the prison compound and view the hanged convicts on the gallows. I noted that most left the pathetic scenes with desolation and absolute disgust. For example, I had a good neighbour friend – an exiled South African. This man could put all the apartheid White South Africans before a firing squad in a second without any hesitation. When I invited him to the execution on Oct. 13, 1978, the man was so excited. But after the execution and we left the prison compound, he said to me: “My brother, this thing is horrible; I never imagine it this way.” And from that day this guy never again expressed openly his desire to see all the apartheid White South Africans before a firing squad. This goes to prove that the Death Penalty has never produced its desired effect – be it for political capital or a potential crime deterrence measure.
Unfortunately, the proponents of the Capital Punishment with all their passionate, flowery speeches and declarations often ignored its tremendous hidden psychological toll. Most see it mainly from a pure vengeance point of view. But no matter how heinous a crime, a penalty cannot be imposed only on vengeance, it must also seek to calibrate the equilibrium of a civilized society. And that is why cruel, barbaric punishments are abolished in most cultured societies.
A Brief historical Reference
The undisputable wisdom and savvy of Liberia’s longest serving President, William V.S. Tubman (1944-1971) could serve our point of reference. He signed a single Death Warrant at the onset of his long reign in 1944. From that moment and probably conscious of his error, he refused categorically to affix his signature to any such document on the grounds that “as President he did not know enough about each given case to be certain of the guilt of the individual” (see: The Liberian Age, November 18, 1971). Interpretation, Tubman, a popular poor-man lawyer before becoming President, did not trust the country’s justice system which had the potential to send innocent individuals to the gallows. In clear, like today the system was already unjust and crooked then.
Like the identical temptation today, the press raised the issue of re-instituting the Death Penalty in 1965, to the same President Tubman. In response, the President made a monkey wrench proposition, suggesting a possible solution that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court be given the function to sign Death Warrants and not the President (see: A. Milner “African Penal Systems,” Routlege and Kegan Paul Ltd, London, 1969, p. 209). And that was the end; the issue disappeared from the radar until his death in office, 1971. And God knows, he was Liberia’s most loved, charismatic, caring, but fearful President.
Thus just a hint, Mr. President. I strongly believe that a single death warrant signed could turn out to be an irreversible political trap, tarnishing not only your own image as a man of peace, caring, charismatic and God fearing, but also that of a nation still struggling to cleanse itself of its ugly past of an untold violence and atrocities.
And again, herein, I conclude with a lone and firm conviction: Capital Punishment must be abolished in Liberia.