‘Please forgive us, we are people too’
By Yuen Meikeng
“I CAN understand how they feel. I would feel the same way.”
This is what death row inmate James (not his real name) had to say when asked about calls for the death penalty to be maintained, made mostly by the families of murdered victims.
Taking a long pause before answering, the 47-year-old then said: “No crime should go unpunished. It just shouldn’t be the death penalty.”
Found guilty by the court for murdering a man, James, who once ran a scrap metal business, claims he did not commit the crime. Despite this, he has been behind bars for the past 14 years and counting, having been locked away at 33.
“Give us a chance. Please … we are people too.
“Please forgive those who have truly repented. Our families are suffering too because we are away from them,” says the father of four.
Handcuffed and dressed in the death row uniform of a white shirt with red sleeves, James is calm and composed when we meet him at Kajang prison.
He was charged with murdering a man, with three others, in his shop in 2004. Since his conviction, his family has been persistently appealing the sentence.
The death penalty was thrust into the spotlight recently when the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government announced it will abolish capital punishment. Those currently on death row will have their sentences commuted to imprisonment for life (spending the rest of their lives in jail) or life imprisonment (jailed for at least 30 years).
A proposed bill to abolish the death penalty is expected to be tabled at the next Dewan Rakyat meeting.
At a press conference in November, family members of murder victims urged those who support the move to walk in their shoes. There will be no justice if the death penalty is abolished, they say.
The recent reclassification of fireman Muhammad Adib Mohd Kassim’s death as a murder also saw some calling for the death penalty to be used against those responsible.
Meanwhile, families of death row inmates held their own press conference, seeking forgiveness for the crimes committed and hoping the government will stay on track and abolish the death penalty.
Asked if he would rather face death than be jailed for life, James chooses the latter, because at least he would still be able to see his family: “I don’t want to stay here. But I would rather continue living to see my wife and children,” says James, whose wife works as a cleaner.
Having been in jail for so long, he says there is “no more use” in crying. “You’re just wasting your tears. If you think too much, there is no use.”
All he has is a burning hope that he will one day be released. And if he is, James says he will start life anew and continue his business.
“I will advise those around me not to mix with bad company. If I can help others, I will.”
Asked if he is afraid of death, James says every human is afraid of dying.
“Some inmates here say they are not scared. But talking is easy.
“Whatever we do on earth, we will have to answer for it one day up above.
“But if we can have another chance to become better people, why not?”
He feels this especially for young offenders on death row.
“Some are only in their 20s. I was surprised to see such young people on our block. Society needs to give them a second chance,” he says.
James says he can tell when someone on their block is about to be hanged. Executions take place on Fridays at 6am and James knows by Thursday if one is scheduled from observing the wardens.
The prisoner gets to see his family for one last time before returning to his cell.
“Once we know, everybody will be unable to sleep. We will all pray for the man who will be executed,” James says.
A typical day on death row includes an hour a day out of the cells to walk around, but “you won’t be able to see the sun”.
“Death row inmates do not get to participate in activities like football. But we get to play carrom and draughts,” says James, who frequently wins at draughts.
The inmates are given three meals a day, with breakfast normally being tea and bread, while rice is served for lunch and dinner.
“We are handcuffed all the time. Even when we eat,” James says.
When he is in his cell, he reads novels and exercises. Some inmates reflect on their case and pray for the best.
Criminal lawyer Amer Hamzah Arshad, who has vast experience in death penalty cases, feels the death sentence has no place in society.
“To take a life for a life that has been lost is revenge. It is not justice,” he says.
He points out that there is no credible evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than imprisonment.
“It is also irreversible. No criminal justice system is perfect. Mistakes occur. Any system that retains the death penalty will inevitably, even if infrequently, cause an innocent person to die,” Amer Hamzah says.
Errors by investigative or prosecution officers, unreliable witnesses, poor legal representation due to the accused’s limited finances may ultimately lead to this.
Many also miss the point that the principle of sentencing should be more in favour of rehabilitation, he says, adding that there is no humane way to execute someone.
“I have observed that most family members of victims feel the death penalty should be retained. Such a view is based on the sentiment that victims must be avenged, and that justice will only be served if the perpetrators are sentenced to death.
“But they are actually indirectly supporting another killing – they are condoning the very act which they abhor in the first place,” Amer Hamzah says.
He says imprisonment for life is better as it provides an avenue for the person to turn over a new leaf.
Moving forward, Amer Hamzah believes the physical conditions of prisons have to be improved to meet international human rights standards.
“We also need to change our mindset. Prisons should not be viewed as places for punishment only.
“In some jurisdictions, prisons are referred to as correctional facilities. This is because the authorities believe in correcting those who have made mistakes more than punishing them,” he points out.
It is also to ensure that those who are serving time do not become hardened criminals.
Citing Norway as an example, Amer Hamzah says it has the best prison system as the rate of repeat offenders is very low.
“The emphasis there is not so much on punishment but rather, on rehabilitation,” he adds.