Tightening the noose

, Last Updated: 7:54 AM ET

An appropriate penalty to fit the crime, or state-sanctioned murder where the risk of making a mistake is too high? The lines are clearly drawn in a debate over capital punishment between Sun Media columnists Lorrie Goldstein and Licia Corbella, brought to the forefront with the case of a Canadian man on death row in Montana and a new Canadian policy that has Ottawa unwilling to intervene to save his life.

LORRIE GOLDSTEIN: Licia, you recently wrote you oppose the death penalty even in cases such as that of Canadian Robert Allen Smith. I believe in capital punishment. Please explain to me why Smith deserves to live, a man you described as “a cold-blooded double murderer” who has shown no remorse, whose guilt is beyond question and who shot two innocent young men in the back of the head just because he “wanted to find out what it would be like to kill somebody?” Why shouldn’t the state of Montana execute him? If Smith had committed this crime in Canada why shouldn’t we?

LICIA CORBELLA: Actually, Lorrie, what I wrote was that Canada’s elected officials voted against capital punishment in 1976 and that the minority Conservative government has no right changing the rules with regard to the death penalty unilaterally. Yes, Smith is a cold-blooded double murderer and not a sympathetic character at all. In some ways that makes my position more difficult to defend, but in some ways clarifies it. I simply don’t want to be a party to cold blooded murder through the state. Period.

GOLDSTEIN: I don’t accept your description of capital punishment as “cold-blooded murder” by the state. That’s moral relativism. When a Smith or a Paul Bernardo or a Clifford Olson preys on us and our children, their intent is pure, selfish, evil gratification. If the state executes them, its intent, meaning our intent, is nothing of the sort. Rather, the state is punishing them and denouncing their unlawful conduct, which is as legitimate a principle of sentencing as rehabilitation. You wouldn’t argue ‘self-defence’ is the same thing as murder were an individual to do it. Why do you use the term when the state, through capital punishment, acts to defend its law-abiding citizens?

CORBELLA: You’re right. If the only people who received the death penalty were people like Smith, Olson and Bernardo we likely wouldn’t be having this debate. They are slam dunks. The problem with the death penalty, Lorrie, is it has caught innocent people in its irreversible web. The Innocence Project reports that 208 convicted and jailed people have been exonerated in the U.S. since the advent of DNA testing. Fifteen of those people had been sentenced to death before DNA evidence proved their innocence. They have since been released. Had they been put to death, that would be murder, Lorrie. I want no part of that.

GOLDSTEIN: I readily concede that DNA evidence has shown that innocent people have been executed for murders they did not commit. Further, in Canada, where we no longer have the death penalty, we must be mindful of the injustices done to Donald Marshall, Guy Paul Morin, David Milgaard and Steven Truscott.

But since DNA testing, as you point out, can conclusively prove someone is innocent of murder in many cases, then logically it follows that it can also conclusively prove guilt in many cases. And my argument is that in cases where there is no doubt of guilt, and if the crimes of the murderer are sufficiently heinous, then capital punishment should be a sentencing option available to our criminal justice system.

CORBELLA: Sheesh, Lorrie. Your first sentence directly above should end this debate. There is enormous horror and injustice in the statement: DNA evidence has shown that innocent people have been executed for murders they did not commit. The problem is, after a fair trial, it is presumed that there is ‘no doubt’ of guilt. Those convicted are declared to be guilty of said crime. What’s more, there are numerous instances in which people are murdered where there is no DNA evidence left behind. It is almost exclusively sex crimes that lead to death that contain the kind of DNA evidence that can convict or exonerate. What about execution-style murders, drive-by shootings, etc.? Eye witness testimony is notoriously risky and yet it is given enormous weight in a court of law.

GOLDSTEIN: You’ve acknowledged there are murder cases where the guilt of the accused is a ‘slam dunk.’ You have conceded there are cases where DNA evidence proves guilt beyond doubt. Why shouldn’t capital punishment be a sentencing option in those cases? As for ‘enormous horror and injustice’ going forward, things we can change, let’s talk about all the cases where innocents have been killed by murderers who were let out of prison to kill again. Innocents like 21-year-old university student Lynda Shaw, who, as you wrote in 2005, was raped, murdered and set on fire by Allan Craig MacDonald, six months after he was paroled in 1989, despite being sentenced in 1974 to life in prison, for shooting to death police officer Eric Spicer and taxi driver Keith McCallum. As you wrote: “DNA evidence proved that convicted double murderer Allan Craig MacDonald was Shaw’s rapist and killer.” Exactly. And if he’d been executed for committing those first two murders, our justice system would have saved Lynda Shaw’s life.

CORBELLA: I remember Lynda Shaw’s death and still feel deep outrage about it. However, the question is not why wasn’t Allan Craig MacDonald sentenced to death, but why was he let out after 15 years? That had something to do with the Liberal’s faint hope clause, a law that rendered life sentences in Canada lies. First degree murderers should spend the rest of their lives behind bars as Olson, Bernardo and other monsters will. Also, it’s not the available evidence that determines whether someone can be put to death. A case is determined to be a capital case or not prior to the trial and before all of the evidence is known. Jurors are chosen accordingly. People who value human life should be pushing our legislators to make life mean life, not 15 or 25 years. Why not push for that Lorrie, rather than the death penalty with all of its inherent dangers?

GOLDSTEIN: The ‘faint hope clause,’ which gutted the sentence of life in prison, was introduced at the same time as capital punishment was abolished in 1976, a measure you supported. We were misled by our government. We were told capital punishment would be abandoned, but a “life” sentence would mean ‘life.’ Instead, “life” sentences (meaning “life” with no possibility of parole for 25 years) were then further undermined by the faint hope clause.

It allows our worst murderers to apply for the right to seek parole after serving only 15 years. Today we have no death penalty and so-called “life” sentences, save for very rare cases, are a myth. We must restore the balance in favour of law-abiding citizens and the protection of society. One way to do that is to bring back the death penalty as a sentencing option for the appropriate capital crimes, where there is no doubt of guilt.

CORBELLA: Presumably every conviction contains no doubt of guilt. Humans are fallible. Irreversible sentences are therefore illogical. I’m dead set against the death penalty and will vote against any party or government that tries to bring it back.


Videos

Photos