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Canada Trusts Parliament, Not Polls, on Death Penalty

October 20, 1987|RONALD SKLAR | Ronald Sklar, a native of New York City, has been for the past decade a professor of criminal law at McGill University, Montreal

MONTREAL — While the United States has resumed the imposition of capital punishment with a vengeance, Canada, given the opportunity to follow the American lead, this summer rejected the idea. Emotionally, Canadians may be in concord with the trend in the States. But, in the end, death-penalty opponents carried the day with well-reasoned arguments.

Canada abolished the death penalty in 1976 and has not had an execution since 1962. But, despite declining levels of violence, proponents of capital punishment continued to have strong backing; public-opinion polls consistently showed that roughly 7 out of 10 Canadians favored the death penalty. Although himself an outspoken opponent of capital punishment, Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Brian Mulroney in February kept an election promise for an open debate on the issue by having his government introduce in the House of Commons a resolution that would, in principle, have restored the death penalty. Estimates at the time were that the resolution would pass, for a large majority of the massive Tory contingent--which held 208 of 282 seats--was thought to favor it.

Restorationists like Conservative Member of Parliament Reginald Stackhouse, an Anglican minister, maintained that capital punishment is a legitimate expression of society's moral outrage at a particularly heinous crime; a question of fitting the punishment to the crime that "demonstrates a commitment to law and order, providing a stability the people want and need."

It has always been generally assumed that most people would accept capital punishment, if only as an unpleasant expedient, if they could be assured that executions would have a deterrent effect superior to long-term imprisonment. After 30 years, starting with criminologist Thorsten Sellin's work comparing homicide rates between adjacent retentionist and abolitionist states, researchers have failed to turn up convincing evidence of such a deterrent effect. During the parliamentary debates, statistics from the United States were introduced showing that West Virginia, Oregon and Maine, which have no death penalty, have lower murder rates than the neighboring states of Virginia, Washington and Vermont, which do. And the murder rate in Florida has risen since the reintroduction of executions there.

As discussion on the bill continued, it became evident that the abolitionists appeared surer of their ground than the restorationists. Whatever the reason--be it far stricter gun-control laws, more comprehensive social programs, less disparity between wealth and poverty or between black and white, historical absence of a Western frontier mentality or the kind of devastation plaguing American inner cities--Canada has had far less of a cult of violence than the United States. The Canadian homicide rate is less than a third the United States': 561 criminal homicides were reported in the nation last year, only about half the number reported in the city of Detroit, which is directly across the border, or in Los Angeles or New York. Sociologist Morton Weinfeld hypothesizes that the Canadian welfare state "minimizes the abrasive edge of the income disparities."

The argument for restoration did not, therefore, seem as compelling as the argument against, which took on a moral quality. Jack Murta, a Conservative MP who had favored the death penalty in 1976, argued that "the execution of an individual is an act of violence, and as such it can never be moral in a society which supposedly abhors violence. It has been demonstrated repeatedly that violence tends to provoke further violence." Members of Parliament were asked whether they wished Canada to be identified in its judicial practices with Iran, South Africa, Saudi Arabia or the Soviet Union, all of which practice capital punishment, or with Western European democracies, which don't.

Major churches and groups forming the Coalition Against the Return of the Death Penalty staged an extraordinarily effective lobbying campaign and distributed a booklet entitled "Why kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?" In the end, virtually all of the swing votes went against capital punishment; on June 30 the vote was 148 to 127.

The debate showed how difficult it is to arrive at a rational rather than an emotional resolution of one of the most wrenching issues in jurisprudence. From a standpoint of retribution, of satisfying the psychological needs of victims' survivors, the death penalty may be justified. Deterrence, on the other hand, does not seem to be a reasonable argument in favor of capital punishment.

In any event a full national airing and determination such as undertaken in Canada seems preferable to the capricious patchwork of capital-punishment laws in the United States, where execution can result from the commission of a crime on one side of a fence but not on the other.

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