THE DEATH VOTE
They are two wrenching visions of the justice of man’s ultimate penalty. In Edmonton, still mourning the grisly death of his 16-year-old son Daryn in 1982, Gary Rosenfeldt is bitterly aware that his murderer, Clifford Olson, remains alive in Ontario’s Kingston Penitentiary. Rosenfeldt now campaigns full time to restore the death penalty.
“Those who believe in capital punishment see justice derived from death, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” he declared last week. “That is justice.” In Ottawa, softspoken United Church minister James Scott has devoted two years to a public education campaign to stop the return of the death penalty.
“How can you balance the scales of justice with another broken body?” he asked. “It is wrong. You only generate a climate in which violence breeds.”
Life: The debate has been joined. Almost 11 years after the abolition of the death penalty in Canada, and more than 24 years after the last hanging, Canadians are again embroiled in the agonizing argument about whether the state should take the life of those who take life. Under pressure from a pocket of right-wing backbenchers, the Conservative government has introduced a motion to give approval in principle to restoring the death penalty. Next month members of Parliament will begin debate on that motion, culminating in a vote in June. Each MP will have 20 minutes to speak on the issue—and most of them will exercise that right. The motion will likely pass. According to a Maclean ’s survey of 254 of the 279 MPS, 124 (49 per cent) now support restoration; 88 (35 per cent) oppose the motion; and 42 (16 per cent) are uncommitted (page 14). In con-
trast, a similar survey of 77 of 103 Senators showed that just 15 (19 per cent) support the motion; 49 (64 per cent) oppose it; and 13 (17 per cent) are undecided.
Those figures will almost certainly change as the debate develops. Two anti-capital-punishment coalitions, in-
cluding the major churches, are launching campaigns to convince MPs of the righteousness of their cause. In turn, victims’ groups are countering those lobbies with anguished pleas for justice and revenge.
Mercy: Most proponents acknowledge that capital punishment is not a proven deterrent—although statistics can be interpreted to support either conclusion. Instead, the debate has focused increasingly on unanswerable questions: what is justice—before men and before God? And when should mercy temper vengeance? Said Val Daniels, founder of Calgary’s Citizens for Capital Punishment and Justice: “Vengeance is not a nasty word.” Countered political scientist George Grant in
Halifax: “Christ said on the cross, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ That eliminates retribution for me.”
Those fundamental questions are not the usual stuff of Commons debates— and many MPs are uneasily aware of the turbulence ahead. The controversial motion, introduced last month by Deputy Prime Minister Don Mazankowski, supports “in principle” the restoration of the death penalty. It also calls for the creation of an all-party committee to determine whom the state should kill and how. The spring debate will end with a rare “free vote”— members voting according to their consciences instead of party lines.
Will: If the motion passes, the 15-member committee will cross the country to solicit opinions and then produce, within 90 days, draft legislation to amend the Criminal Code. That legislation must in turn pass through the House of Commons and then the Liberal-dominated Senate. The Senate almost never defies the will of the Commons; in fact, it last rejected a Commons bill on March 27, 1947—the Dairy Industry Act of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King—on second reading.
But some senators said that they regard capital punishment as a vital issue of conscience—and would have no choice but to vote against the bill. If the Senate defeats the bill, the legislation could not be reintroduced in that session. If the Senate approves the bill, it could become law by the fall of 1988.
That tortuous legislative route is a measure of the emotion surrounding the debate. In the Maclean’s survey, 42 MPS said that they were uncommitted or undecided on the issue. The number in that category increased because
such long-standing supporters of capital punishment as Ontario MP Sinclair Stevens maintained that they have not yet decided how they will vote. In some cases, former death penalty proponents are reconsidering their stance. In a few cases, Maclean’s put an MP in the “yes” category despite that MP’s official undecided stance. Among them: Ontario Tory Gary Gurbin, who said that he was “uncommitted,” even though he has often told constituents that he favors capital punishment for murderers of police officers.
Against: In the Senate, the Maclean ’s survey showed that at least 13 of the 31 Tory senators oppose the motion, four support it, three are uncommitted and 11 did not respond. Conservative Senator John Macdonald told Maclean’s that his position—against restoration—is heavily influenced by the case of Nova Scotian Donald Marshall, who served 11 years in prison for a murder that he did not commit. “The Donald Marshall case is enough to turn anyone’s stomach,” said Macdonald. “That poor bugger would have been dead if there had been capital punishment.”
The Maclean’s tallies will likely change over the next three months, as interest groups exert more pressure on MPs. Two major groups have formed to oppose capital punishment: the Coalition Against the Return of the Death Penalty, which includes 32 national groups, including the major churches; and a committee of community leaders organized by Toronto criminal lawyer Edward Greenspan. The coalition was formed in January, 1985, by members of the Canadian Council of Churches and such groups as the Elizabeth Fry Society, which helps women released from jails and penitentiaries. Over the past two years, with an operating budget of just $50,000, it has attracted such allies as the 9,000-member Canadian Association of Social Workers and 20,000-member Amnesty International. And it has created 40 local groups to speak out against the death penalty.
‘Evil’: The national campaign is now in full gear. Amnesty says it has contacted prominent political leaders in Europe and Australia who have promised to express their repugnance at the death penalty—through public statements or private meetings—to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who personally opposes capital punishment. Leaders of Canada’s major religious groups have also asked for a meeting with Mulroney to register their opposition. Canada’s Anglican bishops endorsed a strong statement opposing the death penalty last month. And two weeks ago the country’s Roman Catholic
bishops denounced capital punishment as a “system that tries to overcome one evil by doing another evil.”
Within three weeks the coalition will distribute information kits to every MP. Each member organization has asked its workers to contact MPs, conduct public seminars and pass out brochures. “We want to have a real dialogue with people,” said Coalition coordinator Eleanor McDonald. “That is when minds change.”
In contrast to that grassroots effort, Greenspan is assembling a high-profile committee to challenge proponents of the death penalty. Members intend to buy advertising space in newspapers, make speeches and conduct a nationwide poll before the final vote. Those conducting the poll will supply information about the death penalty to respondents before their opinion is solicited. And Greenspan has vowed to debate Ontario Tory MP Bill Domm, the nation’s leading crusader for the death penalty, at every opportunity. “Bill Domm single-handedly forced this issue—so he has to be taken on,” said Greenspan. “He will have to live with it the rest of his life.”
Fight: In fact, Domm has become a key focus of the debate—largely because many groups favoring capital punishment are hesitant to engage in a distasteful fight. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, for one, supports the death penalty but will not join any coalition to promote it. The Canadian Police Association also intends to avoid the debate.
Instead, the lobbying has been left to Domm—and a handful of crime victims’ organizations and law-and-order groups. One organization, Citizens Responding to You, is an 80-member national group composed of concerned Canadians. Spokesman Joyce Wilson of Huntsville, Ont., said that she is worried her members and other capital punishment advocates have left most of the fight to Domm. “Why is nobody coming out of the woodwork?” she asked. “We have to start making a noise now.”
Death penalty proponents take comfort in opinion polls. In a Gallup survey last October, 68 per cent favored capital punishment, 20 per cent opposed it and 12 per cent were undecided. Those figures have remained relatively constant throughout the 1980s. But opponents are equally buoyed by studies charting the effect of death penalty facts on public opinion.
In a 1975 study, Neil Vidmar, a psychology professor at the University of Western Ontario, and Austin Sarat, a political science professor at Amherst College, polled 181 adults in Amherst, Mass., about the death penalty. Later,
one group read an essay containing factual arguments against capital punishment; another read an essay with moral arguments; and a third group read both papers.
The results were dramatic. Among the group that read the fact paper, support for capital punishment dropped to 38 from 51 per cent; after reading the humanitarian paper, support dipped to 49 from 54 per cent; and support in the group that read a combination of material plummeted to 42 from 62 per cent. “Most people are uninformed about the death penalty,” Vidmar said.
“When they read about it, they tend to oppose it.”
Fear: Members of the coalition against the death penalty say that many Canadians advocate capital punishment out of fear of crime. Indeed, many studies support the view that the public exaggerates the crime rate. According to a 1982 study by the University of Toronto’s Centre of Criminology, almost 75 per cent of Canadians believe that at least 30 per cent of all crimes are violent. In reality, only 5.7 per cent fall into that category. Moreover, almost two-thirds of Canadians believe that the murder rate has increased since the abolition of capital punishment in 1976. But a 1985 report from the solicitor general’s department concluded that the rate has shown “no significant changes.”
Death: Those figures go to the heart of the capital punishment debate: is it a deterrent to crime? In 1975, the year before Parliament abolished the death penalty, Statistics Canada said that the rate of homicide charges was 3.09 per 100,000 people. It has never again been so high. In 1985, the last year for which figures are available, it was 2.78. Other statistics cited by opponents of hanging: 38 police officers were murdered in Canada between 1966 and 1975— compared to 37 in the 10 years after abolition. And during those two decades the number of police officers almost doubled. Last August the Association of Chiefs of Police acknowledged, “It is futile to base an argument on reinstatement on the grounds of deterrence.”
But proponents of capital punishment can also marshal some distressing statistics about the growth of crime. The
solicitor general’s department reported that between 1978 and 1982 the overall rate of Criminal Code offences increased by 22.7 per cent. In the same period the rate of violent crimes such as sexual assault jumped 15.9 per cent.
Domm also notes that the rate of
first-degree murder charges—including “planned and deliberate” murders—has increased steadily to 1.33 per 100,000 in 1985 from 0.87 per cent in 1977. The decline in general homicide rates, Domm said, is irrelevant, “because we are debating executions for a certain type
of murderer—planned and deliberate.” United Church minister Scott countered that public pressure has led police to lay more first-degree charges. Law officers are also engaging in more plea-bargaining—so heavier charges are laid to encourage guilty pleas for a lesser offence.
While that statistical battle rages,
Domm’s crusade is drawing strength from the public perception that the law does not punish criminals adequately—so public safety is threatened. The current penalty for first-degree murder is a minimum of 25 years without parole; for second-degree murder it is at least 10 years without parole.
But in Calgary, rocked by the murder of RCMP Special Const. Gordon Kowalczyk last January, those sentences hold little meaning. Calgary’s John Neal, 63-year-old owner of a chemical distribution business, said that he does not care if capital punishment is not a deterrent: “So what? Neither is the few years in jail that most of the perpetrators seem to be getting.”
Painful: In the end, the debate always comes back to one question: does the punishment fit the crime? For proponents, the issue 8 is painful but simple: a life y for a life. As Wilson, of 25 Citizens Responding To You, said: “I could never give a lethal injection [to a condemned murderer], but thank goodness there is someone who can. Any cold-blooded murderer has forfeited his right to live.”
For opponents, the sanctity of life is a measure of the civility—and goodness—of a society. The coalition against the death penalty has suggested alternatives to protect Canadians: tighter gun controls, better treatment for alcohol and drug abuse and programs to deter family violence—still one of the major causes of homicide. Greenspan further recommends that the courts —not parole boards acting behind closed doors—should have the power to parole convicted murderers.
But in the end, the most haunting assertion may belong to the coalition’s 11 major religious organizations. In a brief, I they said: “It is a basic tenet 1 that the sacredness of life can be 1 neither forfeited nor denied, no I matter how heinous the crime.” Caught between religious injunction on the one hand and many angry constituents on the other, MPs face an agonizing session with their colleagues—and their consciences.
MACKENZIE in Ottawa and ASHLEY GEDDES