Should The State KI?

MARK NICHOLS June 29 1987

Should The State KI?

MARK NICHOLS June 29 1987

Should The State KI?


Samuel Crozier, a retired farmer who lives in Biggar, Sask., is bitter about the way Canada’s criminal justice system works. Almost 20 years ago his wife, Gladys, was killed when the car she was driving was struck by another vehicle. The other driver, says Crozier, was “95 per cent drunk” and yet he was never charged and “never paid any penalty” because the police did not pursue the case. Partly as a result of that experience, Crozier, 82, says that Canadian society treats criminals too leniently, and that a return to capital punishment would help give law-abiding citizens a sense of having “the law in our favor.” As it is, said Crozier, prison terms served by murderers in Canada are ridiculously low. He added: “They say, ‘I’ll just put in my term and go out and be twice as bad.’ ”

Alarm: With Crozier, Canadians in all parts of the country and in all walks of life are alarmed at the rising level of violent crime in society. They say that the existing system for upholding law and order is functioning poorly, and may even be contributing to an increase in crime. Those were among the findings of a Maclean's/Decima poll completed last week. Three out of five of the respondents also said that they supported, or leaned toward, restoration of the death penalty, which has not been carried out in Canada since 1962 and was removed from the Criminal Code 11 years ago. At the same time, many of those who said that they supported capital punishment were only loosely attached to that prescription. In answer to other survey questions, and in follow-up interviews by Maclean's with a crosscountry sampling of 40 of the poll respondents, many also demonstrated that they share an uncertain attitude toward the notion that the death penalty is the right and effective answer to their concerns about violence.

Many of the prevalent concerns about violence were expressed by poll respondent Marjorie Subject, a 38-year-old housewife and part-time cleaning worker in Halifax. “I think it is just getting to be too much,” she said. “Every time

you pick up a newspaper or turn on the television, there’s another killing. Usually the murderer gets off, or is out again in no time. You get more for burning down a barn or a house. The laws are too lax.”

Still, the results of the poll—which was carried out just as Parliament debated possible restoration of the death penalty—indicated that two out of three Canadians did not believe that ultimate-

ly Parliament would act to bring back capital punishment. “The overwhelming view,” noted Allan Gregg, chairman of Decima Research Ltd., after analysing the poll results, “is that the death penalty will never be brought back, but if it is, it will be only for a short time.” Ambivalent: The poll also suggested that the views of Canadians on the death penalty are in many ways ambivalent and sometimes contradictory. Typ-

ically, Anne Bay-Horychuk, a retired Winnipeg nurse, explained that “I believe in God, and you just can’t take someone’s life.” Despite that, she said that she would support execution of murderers who committed premeditated crimes involving cruelty and suffering. The complicated mixture of feelings that Canadians hold on the subject of crime and punishment was reflected in the results of a telephone survey of 1,500 people 18 years or older across the country conducted for Maclean's by Decima between June 7 and 14. The survey indicated that an overwhelming majority of Canadians—especially women, low-income and older Canadians, and city dwellers—are concerned that the incidence of both violent crime and murder are on the rise in Canada. And 61 per cent of those polled said that they thought capital punishment would be an effective deterrent, discouraging would-be murderers. But analysis of the survey data indicated that there was little relationship between concerns about the rising crime rate and a willingness to restore capital punishment. “Rather, it would appear,” noted Gregg, “that support and opposition to capital punishment are rooted in deep philosophical differences.” He said that it appeared that opponents of capital punishment are motivated principally by moral considerations, while those who favor the death penalty tend to believe that it would serve as a deterrent to potential murderers.

Support: The poll results also suggested that even though Canadians— when they are asked— tend to say that they support a return of capital punishment, they are not strongly committed to the idea. Of those in favor of restoration, only 36.7 per cent said that they were convinced that Canada should bring back the death penalty, while 24 per cent only leaned toward the idea.

As well, of the 35 per cent who were not fully committed on either side of the issue, more than one-quarter—or almost 10 per cent of the total population—indicated that they might change their minds. “Clearly,” said Gregg, “there is some ambivalence and potential volatility on this subject.”

Humane: At the same time, the poll results indicated that most Canadians are influenced by humanitarian impulses. When they were asked about the risk of innocent people being executed by mistake, 59 per cent of those polled agreed that this was a concern, while

another 20 per cent strongly agreed.

Poll respondents also rejected by a 64per-cent majority a suggestion that some form of corporal punishment, such as whipping or strapping, be inflicted on those convicted of violent crimes. And when asked to choose what forms of execution should be used if capital punishment were brought back, they showed a strong preference (49 per cent) for lethal

injection, a method that is widely regarded as more humane than hanging or other traditional forms of execution.

Respondents were also asked if executions should be given special publicity to increase the deterrent value of the act. But 77 per cent said that the death penalty should be carried out with minimal publicity. Still, a few respondents thought that televised executions might be a good idea. “Don’t replace Mork & Mindy or M*A*S*H for it,” said Hans Lorenz, 25, who runs a housecleaning service in Edmonton: “But you should show executions on TV and get a good look at it.”

An analysis of crosstabulated poll data showed significant demographic differences, with men, Canadians over 45, the less-educated and people with large numbers of children tending to be convinced in favor of bringing back capital punishment. Students, people with postgraduate university degrees and francophones are more likely to be convinced opponents of the death penalty. But the sharpest distinctions were on a regional and cultural basis, with 72 per cent of those polled in the three Prairie provinces supporting, or leaning toward, a return to capital punishment, compared with only 51 per cent of Quebecers—the lowest level of support in the country. “The biggest differences are found in the question of the morality of capital punishment,” said Gregg, “and Quebecers have significantly more difficulty with that issue than residents of English Canada.”

Morality: The findings of The Maclean's/Decima Poll suggested that Canadians as a whole are evenly divided over the fundamental question of whether it is morally right for the state to carry out what amounts to legally sanctioned murder by inflicting the death penalty. Asked to weigh a statement to the effect that it is never right for anyone—even the state—to take a human life, 49 per cent of the respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement. But exactly the same percentage of respondents indi-


(rounded percentages)

Convicted murderers are allowed g7

back in society too soon

Firmly favor or leaning to restoring g J the death penalty in Canada

The death penalty would deter g J others from murder

Executions should be carried out 77 with minimum publicity

Capital punishment is the only gg

suitable penalty for murder

Innocent people might be executed 79 by mistake

Death should be the penalty for 78 convicted killers of children

Death should not be the penalty for gg murder in domestic disputes

Parliament will not bring back the g7 death penalty

The death penalty question should 74 be decided by a national vote

(Results in rounded percentages from a national Maclean’s/ Decima survey of 1,500 Canadians June 7 to 14. Results accurate for the whole population within 2.6 percentage points either way, 19 times in 20.)

cated that they supported or strongly supported the view that the state should not commit legal murder. Declared poll participant Mildred MacGregor of Burnaby, B.C.: “I do not see how two murders make a right. I don’t think we’re going to accomplish anything by taking revenge.”

A similar split showed up when survey participants were asked to respond to the statement that “murder is such a terrible crime, the only suitable penalty is to take the life of a murderer.” Although 48 per cent of those polled either disagreed or strongly disagreed with that proposition, 50 per cent supported or strongly supported the statement. “If people take other people’s lives,” said respondent Verne Nordholme of Biggar, Sask., “they should pay for it in the same way.”

Comparisons: Respondents who agreed to elaborate on their views spoke to Maclean’s reporters after first being contacted by Decima researchers who asked them to answer 43 separate questions on capital punishment and related crime and social issues. The resulting data, which were geographically weighted to make regional comparisons possible, reflected the views of Canadians representing all income groups and political persuasions. Statisticians consider that a poll of the type carried out will produce results that are accurate for the

whole population within 2.6 percentage points either way, 19 times out of 20.

The findings of The Maclean’s/Decima Poll also appeared to bear out indications of a gradual decline in public

support for capital punishment that has been reflected in opinion polls taken over the past five years. According to surveys taken by Gallup Canada, support for capital punishment declined to 61 per cent in a poll taken two months ago from 70 per cent in 1982. In The Maclean’s/Decima Poll, the same proportion of respondents—61 per cent—either supported or leaned toward restoration of the death penalty. At the same time, 72 per cent of those polled who “leaned” toward or against restoration said that they were unlikely to change their views as a result of the continuing political debate over the issue. That suggested that the basic support for capital punishment probably stood at about 54 per cent.

Influence: The poll indicated that most Canadians have not been heavily influenced in their views by the public debate over capital punishment—although, where people say that they have been swayed, the trend has been toward a hardening of views among death penalty supporters. Altogether, 36 per cent said that during the past several years they had become more inclined to support the death penalty, while 21 per cent said that they had moved in that direction in the past few months as a result of the current parliamentary debate over the issue. But in the same time periods, 54 per cent and 70 per cent re-

spectively of those polled said that their views had not substantially changed.

The Maclean ’s/Decima Poll clearly indicated that a large majority of Canadians are deeply troubled by a rising incidence of murder and other violent crimes—though at times the public perception of crime rates is at variance with actual crime statistics. When they were asked about crime rates in Canada during the past 10 years, 81 per cent of the respondents said that they believed violent crime in Canada had either increased or increased greatly. In fact, federal statistics show

that the number of violent crimes— including assault, armed robbery and attempted murder—increased by almost 39 per cent in the 10 years through 1985. But André Normandeau, a University of Montreal criminologist, noted that the pace of that increase has diminished. Between 1960 and 1975, he said, the rate of those crimes had risen by about 100 per cent.

Asked about the number of murders committed each year in Canada, 75 per cent of the respondents indicated that they thought there were either more or many more murders committed in Canada today compared with a decade

ago. In fact, federal statistics show that there were 561 homicides in Canada last year, down from 668 in 1976— the year that capital punishment officially ended in Canada. That meant that, while Canada’s population increased during those years, the homicide rate actually declined to 2.2 per

100.000 people —the lowest since 1971—from 2.9 for every 100,000. As well, the murder rate in Canada is still far below that of the United States, where the latest available statistics show that there were 7.9 murders per

100.000 of population in 1985.

When respondents were asked to decide what kinds of criminals should be executed if capital punishment were to be brought back, child killers headed the list, with 78 per cent of those polled saying that such people should be executed. That result was followed by terrorists who commit murders (72 per cent), the killers of police officers and prison guards (70 per cent) and criminals who commit murder in the course of some other crime, such as robbery (60 per cent).

A telling poll result on the administration of justice dealt with prosecution of killers. Although 62 per cent of

the respondents said that they would have no difficulty convicting a murder defendant whom they believed to be guilty if the death penalty were brought back, 25 per cent indicated that they would be less likely to convict a criminal who could face the death penalty. “With one-quarter of the population displaying some reluctance to convict those accused of murder,” noted Gregg, “this undoubtedly further weakens the position of supporters of capital punishment.”

Asked what forms of execution should be used—some cited more than one — respondents strongly favored the three principal methods used in the United States, including lethal injection (49 per cent), electrocution (13 per cent) and the gas chamber (10 per cent). Only six per cent favored hanging, the traditional Canadian method, last used in 1962.

Parole: But in discussing whether capital punishment should, or ever will, be brought back in Canada, respondents to The Maclean's/ Decima Poll repeatedly went beyond those issues to examine the more basic question of how society can be protected without recourse to the death penalty. Some respondents argued that if parole procedures were tightened and prison sentences were made longer, there would be less need for capital punishment. “If I had some assurance that a 25-year sentence meant 25. years,” declared Frank Crockett, a retired Winnipeg public relations consultant, “then I’d have no hesitation in saying, ‘Don’t bring back the death penalty.’ ” Others, like Gerard Dutil, a Sherbrooke, Que., printer, argued that “we have to start with moral and religious education, because almost all criminals have had a difficult childhood, or a bad education or a lack of love.” Ultimately, in the search for a way to cleanse society of crime, Canadians may face a choice that centres on precisely those issues—between taking lives or healing them.



(rounded percentages)

Should Canada bring back the death penalty?

Convinced yes 37 \

Leaning yes 24 7

Convinced no 27 \

Leaning no.......................................... 11 7



■ If restored, the death penalty should apply to killers:

Of children............................................................78

In terrorist acts................................................72

Of police and prison guards 70

In committing another crime 60

In domestic arguments 28

Which method or methods of execution should be used?

Lethal injection 49

Electrocution 13

Gas chamber 10


Serving on a murder trial jury, believing the defendant to be guilty and knowing that conviction would bring the death penalty, you would:

Be less likely to convict 25

Be more likely to convict 11

Convict regardless of the penalty 62

The most important issue in deciding whether to restore capital punishment:

• Innocent people might

be executed if the death penalty is restored 38

• It is never right, even for the \

state, to take a life, even a / murderer’s..........................................20 '

• Restoring capital punish-

ment might result in fewer murders.................................................24

• The only suitable penalty for murder is to take the

murderer’s life

Corporal punishment, such as whipping and strapping, should be imposed for crimes where the victim is physically abused, as in sexual assaults 35

Corporal punishment should not be used because it is wrong for society to take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth .64