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Get the big hit man, not petty Pitman

BC Pires Interview with Gregory Delzin on Capital Punishment • Sunday Express • 12 June 2005 • 2,574 words

“We could throw away those murderers because they’re hated and unpopular – but it’s the attitude we develop in throwing away those murderers that ensures the children of today become the murderers of tomorrow.”

Gregory Delzin is one of a handful of lawyers prepared to work extremely hard at short notice for no pay to save the lives of condemned murderers.

Q: Should the State successfully hang this murderer tomorrow, would that be good or bad for the country?

A: It would be terrible, because they would have hanged somebody who had not exhausted his criminal appellate process. He is now before the Privy Council. The country would never know if he was properly convicted or not [because] there has been no final determination on his guilt or innocence.

Q: But a PNM administration once managed to hang a man while his lawyers were on their legs in court?

A: That’s right. [Chuckling] Maybe they’re taking advantage of their experience and expertise in that area. No government has ever had a fact-finding commission of enquiry into the execution of Glen Ashby so we don’t know whether he was lawfully executed or not. In any developed country, that would have happened.

Q: Aren’t you being optimistic about a country that still doesn’t know how many people died in the 1990 coup attempt?

A: [Chortling] You’re right! It’s not optimism, it’s hope. I have to hope this country a standard somewhere near to what is expressed in the Constitution and that our governments try to attain the standard, the basis on which we are found. I am yet to be persuaded.

Q: People take delight in the story, perhaps apocryphal, of Ashby being taken to the gallows with a mango in his mouth ?

A: Yeah! People love the idea of a man being dragged to his death where his matter is before the courts. People don’t understand, that it could be Glen Ashby today and it could be you tomorrow. Because that’s what the court system exists for: to adjudicate on issues and to protect you against the State while you are before them. The State is all-powerful and can do as it will unless it is kept in check by the courts and the law. If the State is allowed to ignore the courts and law, then all citizens are at risk. Today it could be a murderer, tomorrow it could be my house they’re coming to publicly acquire!

Q: Surely we don’t have to worry about the execution of Death Row inmates today leading to a threat to us tomorrow?

A: Persons who [will] commit murders in ten years’ time, are being brought up now. Those future persons will be determined by how their parents raise them in the society in which they’re brought up. If you create a society that aspires towards the ideals of our Constitution through the example of the government, you are encouraging a better society. So it’s true to say we could throw away those murderers because they’re hated and unpopular – but it’s the attitude we develop in throwing away those murderers that ensures the children of today become the murderers of tomorrow. Compassion is an essential element of any society that respects fundamental rights and freedoms.

Q: Can’t we aspire to these liberal ideals you espouse while pragmatically recognising we need State of Emergency-like powers, we need to suspend habeas corpus to arrest 500 bad men and we need to hang some murderers?

A: I agree you have to have drastic measures when society is threatened; and that is why emergency powers exist. But crime and people killing people are the norm in all societies. That is not an element of emergency requiring emergency-type powers; sure, by politics, you can create a smokescreen to call it an emergency. Consistent murder requires the application of proper and effective policing and actions by the citizenry. We are our own brothers’ keeper. When crimes are committed, it’s not just the criminals but the witnesses, the persons who need to come out and say who the [perpetrators] are - that’s how societies keep crime down: by right-thinking citizens acting properly all the time. Governments need to give the necessary resources to the arms of the State to do their jobs. Now we have criminals who are highly educated and sophisticated dealing with a police service that has lagged behind. The horse is bolted and they’re now closing the stable door. Add to that the perception that we have Government leaders meeting or colluding with these criminals at a political and social level. It creates serious uncertainty in society as to the credible nature of our laws. It makes people insecure.

Q: Are you saying the State should move against other criminals?

A: Oh, yeah, the big criminals! The one who everybody knows about but nobody touches. The drug lords who launder money, who are maybe even members of political parties, who fund them. The criminals in open association with politicians. The real big issue in TT is, crime seems to be protected. The industry that is crime is not attacked. It is the petty criminals who are. Lawyers and business people can easily point to money-laundering businesses, who do no business but yet have a high turnover in cash. When was the last money-laundering charge brought? People know who the big drug lords are [but] we have no racketeering laws. The United States didn’t attack the Mafia through charging people with murder; it was through the income tax laws.

Q: Are you suggesting a government serious about crime would do a lifestyle audit of, say Abu Bakr, who openly maintains four wives and households with no apparent income?

A: Precisely! When was the last time the Muslimeen was audited? [Laughing] Last time I checked, there were prison terms open for non-payment of tax on each occasion – so, if you don’t pay tax for the last ten years, that’s ten charges! I’m just giving examples of how people can take advantage of existing laws if they’re really serious. Throwing this specious nonsense around that if you hang some criminals, you make a dent in crime…

Q: But the death penalty is an actual deterrent to the angry young men who do commit murder, isn't it?

A: That is not correct. You base it on the erroneous assumption that a person who commits murder expects to get caught. Deterrence has to do with sentencing, conviction. No one thinks of the penalty when going to rob a bank. They rob the bank to run away and spend the money. Take the example of the two snipers in the US. All of the killings were done on a circular highway around Washington that passes through two states, Maryland and Virginia. One of those states does not have the death penalty and one has. All they had to do was drive 100 yards more to choose the state without the death penalty to shoot people. It was the opposite: the killings were done in the death penalty state.

Q: Surely the notion of apprehension of punishment would make them less likely to murder?

A: That is how a law-abiding citizen thinks. A person who is not law-abiding thinks about being successful in crime.

Q: If they had the sense the police might catch them and they might be hanged instead of being fed three squares until death?

A: The starting point is, the police must catch them. What really deters is the organs of the State that apply the law.

Q: In your own personal life, if you were under threat from some guys, wouldn’t a show of force keep them away?

A: A show of force could keep those on the edge, those thinking about it, from going over. I concede that. but when you look at the kinds of murders committed in Trinidad, those are not persons on the edge. Those are hardened criminals. You have to ask, and people don’t want to, but they have been produced by our society. They didn’t drop from the sky. The death penalty prevents the government and people from looking at the real causes of crime, by thinking that once you kill the killer you’ve somehow created a respect for life. But you’re really creating a brutal environment lacking compassion that instills fear as a method of ruling.

Q: This man hurt us; why can’t we hurt him back?

A: I understand retribution. I have experienced crime in my life. I know what the helplessness and anger feel like. At the end of the day, I have to be able to look at my children and say I did what I think was right and best for them. I didn’t leave them a cynical society.

Q: Surely the AG would say he’s doing everything he can to make the place safer for his children?

A: He’s in an awkward position you know. He’s the State’s lawyer; he has to appear to be administering the law; but he’s also a politician right behind the prime minister. He’s in a serious conflict of interest position. I feel for him.

Q: Are we not in an emergency now? Isn’t it time for us to lash back?

A: I agree it is time for us to get tough but [the question is] what we do. The reason Trinidad is getting rough is, we have a thriving drug trade with thugs who literally seem to have a free run of certain government organizations and seem to have some sort of blessing or protective cover over their activities. People don’t want to say it but that is the real reason behind crime. If we enforced laws against these organized criminals, if we had laws to ensure politicians did not get involved with these criminals, we’d create an environment with more peace, less drug addicts, less robberies. We don’t want to take the tough decisions. Politicians have put themselves in an awkward position where they relied on people to get votes and now they can’t bell the cat. And we the citizens are paying the price.

Q: But our legal system will be used by you to save the life of a man who viciously murdered good people contributing to society?

A: I know and it’s a hard thing for people to swallow; but the promise of civilization is, we will grow only if our laws are applied objectively and evenly without fear or favour to everyone. You don’t have to show you’re a good person to access a court system. If we based people’s right to access a legal system on what they’ve done in their life, we’ll go back to a church-run system where moral issues determine everything. I don’t want to live in that kind of society. I want to be guaranteed that, if I am good today and bad tomorrow, I will have the same equal rights when I go before the court. As a lawyer, I believe the only way we will survive is by our institutions freeing themselves from any discrimination against anyone who comes to the system. At the end of the day, the system works. Look at Dole Chadee: they had their day in court but were hanged. I have no problem with that. Lawyers must ensure the system has integrity. I don’t want politicians interfering to tell me, based on politics, that I must live or die. This man has an appeal pending before the Privy Council. There was absolutely no reason to read a warrant of execution except to create the façade that the government was getting tough on crime. I’ve been doing these motions for 12 years now and this is one of the worst examples of wanton cruelty. When they read the warrant to this man, they knew he would get a stay. This has nothing to do with the Cropper murder. He is just a tool for politics.

Q: And what is wrong with taking up that tool at this time?

A: Under my Constitution, I am guaranteed to be treated as a human being, not a tool for political or other purposes and the government must respect that.

Q: But you’re using the same man as a tool to achieve the Constitutional good you desire?

A: I’m not in politics. I didn’t call him. He asked for us to represent him because he knows we’ve garnered some experience in this. Under the ethics of the legal profession, a lawyer asked to represent somebody on a capital charge must not refuse. This is what lawyers are supposed to do!

Q: And surely governments are supposed to enforce the law?

A: There is no law saying a person sentenced to hang must be executed. The law says, if you are found guilty of murder, the judge must sentence you to death. The judge writes a trial judge’s report to the Mercy Committee which, following legal guidelines to ensure fairness, considers whether you should be executed. At the end of that, the Advisory Committee under the power of Parliament advises the Minister of National Security whether the person ought to be executed. Curiously, the Minister is free to ignore the Advisory Committee, rendering that whole process null and void, and the President must follow his advice. In this case, none of that procedure was followed. We have a republican Constitution. Absolute power resides in nobody. The reason society exists is to give citizens rights. A minister with the power of life or death over someone cannot act as a politician. I am not a plaything or tool. I am a citizen. He must act in my interest. He could never make a decision to execute me.

Q: But you’re trying to apply this to a place which has already had a former prime minister appointed as president?

A: You’re answering [your own] question. Our leaders have had little regard for the spirit of the law. If they have shown over the last 30 years that the law is there to be manipulated, scoffed at and made into a pappyshow, how can we cultivate a society based on moral values? Our society is now paying the price. I am convinced we live in a society where sham and perception are placed at a higher value than reality. There is no such thing as right or wrong, only what people think of you. If you can hide right and wrong under guises, that’s acceptable. Issues come up and, instead of dealing with the issues, you create commissions of enquiry to give the impression enquiry is being made but to actually prevent enquiry. It is based on the principle that people will forget. It is that approach that is destroying our society.

Q: How do you respond to the charge that you all are a bunch of rich white boys safe from the real threat of crime inside your gated communities?

A: [Laughing] The opposite is true. I was born in Tunapuna and lived there to the age of 27. If you practice law and don’t specialise in a particular area, you get a real sense of the wrongs and rights in society and whether mechanisms work for people. You are in the best position to have a pulse on what is happening in society. [Chuckling] I suspect that is why many lawyers become politicians.

Q: Is there anything you’d particularly like to add?

A: [Smiling] I’ve probably said too much already.

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