“Free of blindfolds, the eight did sing, as they faced their final end. The echo of the barrel sounded then the silence did descend. Like statues, there the crowd stood mute, pondering whether this was justice or just brute.”
The death of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran on 29 April 2015 exposed a surprising amount of division in our nation. A number of groups called for mercy on behalf of these two young men as they viewed the death penalty as inhumane.
Conversely, opinion polls suggested a slim majority of Australians supported Indonesia’s decision to apply the death penalty as part of its justice system.
I wish to explore the source for this division, reflect on the Church’s teaching on capital punishment and how this teaching impacts the priorities of our criminal justice system.
One way in which this division came to a head was the public reaction to some scholarships the Australian Catholic University (ACU) announced a few hours after the execution.
According to Prof Greg Craven, Vice-Chancellor of ACU, the scholarships were created to commemorate these two men who met their deaths “reformed, redeemed, courageously and uncompromisingly human”.
The scholarships will be awarded to two Indonesian students currently at ACU who show their potential in making a contribution to the eventual abolishment of the death penalty in Indonesia.
Despite these noble aims, there was a negative reaction to the scholarships by some sections of the Australian community. Critics highlighted the drug-related offences committed by Chan and Sukumaran and argued that these scholarships were glorifying convicted criminals.
One of the points they made was that drugs such as heroin, which these men were trafficking, caused significant harm to the community and public safety. This harm can, on some occasions, be fatal.
The families affected by drugs, whether it is heroin, ice or any other drug, can feel helpless and cry out for justice in their pain. But will the deaths of Chan and Sukumaran ease this pain? Is the death penalty an appropriate deterrent for drug crime?
Amnesty International (AI), which was one of the groups leading the plea for mercy, maintains the death penalty is not an appropriate deterrent. In fact, AI is against the use of the death penalty for any crime anywhere in the world.
The basis of this view is AI’s belief in human rights as defined by the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948. Its position on the death penalty is based on the idea that the right to life of every human being is inalienable or, in other words, it cannot be taken or given away.
Hence, irrespective of the crimes of an individual, they still have the right to life even if they are a mass murderer. AI’s position on the death penalty could worry some members of the community who might be concerned about public safety.
The Catholic Church’s view on the death penalty does take into account public safety. The Church believes in the inherent dignity of every human person. However, the Church has for many centuries taken a position that self-defence can be justified in certain situations.
Innocent individuals who defend themselves from an aggressor can be morally justified in killing their aggressor as a last resort. This argument can also be applied to society.
In different periods of history, weak governments have not always been able to guarantee the safety of society from serious criminals. However, in our own time governments have significant resources to maintain law and order.
Consequently, the Church position as outlined in paragraph 2267 of theCatechism of the Catholic Church favours the use of non-lethal means to protect society.
Moreover the Catechism states that “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” In other words, jail is the best way of dealing with serious criminals and the use of the death penalty is not justified in our society.
The execution of Chan and Sukumaran was, therefore, inhumane because Indonesia could guarantee the safety of its citizens using its jail system.
While the men were in jail they underwent a significant degree of rehabilitation. They were actively involved in helping other prisoners with their efforts to rehabilitate.
Rehabilitation and redemption are more consistent with human dignity than brutal punishments and excessive deterrents.
These sentiments may not satisfy the victims of crime but brutal punishment impacts on the inherent human dignity of us all and these punishments do not help us build a better society.