The Team in Barbados

In September 2017 we travelled to Barbados to conduct a series of impact and public engagement activities as part of our ongoing work on the Caribbean Death Penalty Research project. On Friday 15th September, a day of focus group research and public engagement was scheduled, to be followed by a seminar on the death penalty on Monday 18th. The trip was made possible, and arranged in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme and in particular with Michelle Brathwaite, the National Human Rights Officer. The trip afforded the team a fantastic opportunity to meet key stakeholders in the region, such as Michelle, and we also had a chance to meet the Resident Coordinator Stephen O’Malley. All the events were held at UN House, Christ Church.

In addition to the generous hosting offered by the UN, the trip was funded by a HEIF award held by Dr Seal (through the University of Sussex), and a seed funding award to Dr Black (from the College of Social Sciences and Law, University College Dublin).

Focus Groups

On Friday morning, we began our day of focus groups. These offered a chance to engage in research on public views on the death penalty, as well as a key means of public engagement on the issue. The focus groups had been promoted in advance through the placement of an online notice in the Barbados Today newspaper. The focus groups were also promoted through the social media site Twitter, and by emails to various academic departments at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill campus, as well as student organisations.

We held two focus groups through the day, involving a total of 25 participants, aged from 19 to 61. Focus groups lasted for approximately 90 minutes and involved a general discussion of crime and punishment, a more concentrated discussion of participants’ views on the death penalty, followed by the discussion of various case studies. In these case studies, participants were read the facts of a hypothetical murder case, and were asked to discuss which sentence was most appropriate – sentences included non-custodial ‘Other’ options, imprisonment for a specified term, a life sentence, or the death sentence.

In both focus groups, when participants were asked which issues were most pressing on the theme of crime in Barbados, a number of topics came up:

  • Participants felt that there was a general societal decline, and many compared the problem of crime today with their experience of crime in the past.
  • Related to this, participants voiced concerns for the actions of younger people in society. They associated this with a failure of discipline, and increasingly lax attitudes towards children’s behaviour.
  • Finally, participants also pointed to the problem of corruption. Throughout the discussions, there was a recurrent reference to leading by example, and participants believed that unethical practices by those in government and business set a bad example for society.

Participants were also vocal about their criticisms of the criminal justice system. A need for stronger penalties was articulated by some, while others stressed the need for a more efficient criminal justice system focusing particularly on the delays in the courts. Participants also voiced the need for greater resources to be devoted to rehabilitation. When participants were asked to select the most appropriate sentences for the selected case studies of murder, the voting on each sentence suggested that there was not strong support for the mandatory death sentence for murder.

The focus groups offered an open and engaged way of discussing issues of crime and punishment in Barbados. As researchers, we gained a lot from the experience, and we particularly enjoyed hearing the plurality of views on the death penalty.

Seminar

On Monday 18th September, we held a seminar at UN House. We were pleased that the seminar received a significant turn out, especially as the effects of the passing Hurricane Maria could be felt, and storm warnings were in effect throughout the island. The attendees were drawn from various UN agencies, civil society groups such as US Aid, as well as representatives from organisations working in the areas of violence against women, and LGBTQI rights. The seminar was also very well attended by attorneys, who offered an insight into the legal consequences of the mandatory death sentence for murder.

Florence, Lynsey, and Lizzie each presented on an aspect of their work on the death penalty in the Caribbean. Florence outlined the research already carried out with regard to Trinidad and Tobago and reviewed the findings from three studies she had previously carried out in collaboration with Professor Roger Hood and the Death Penalty Project. Lynsey spoke about the current legal status of the death penalty in Barbados, and offered some context on the mandatory death sentence. She also outlined the results of an exploratory online public survey which assessed people’s views on the mandatory death sentence. Finally, Lizzie outlined the preliminary findings from the focus group research that was held on the previous Friday and spoke about the benefits of using focus groups as a means of exploring public opinion.

The Q&A which closed the seminar facilitated a serious debate on the issue of the death penalty in Barbados, and the effect that the mandatory death sentence for murder was having on conviction rates and criminal justice disposals in Barbados’ courts.

Finally, the seminar made it to the front page of the Barbados Advocate in the September 20th issue, and carried a fuller report on the need for further research on page 4. The team were really pleased to reach a wide audience!

Barbados Advocate

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Seminar on the Death Penalty

On Monday 18th September, a seminar on the Death Penalty in the Caribbean will take place at UN House, Christ Church, Barbados—the seminar is open to members of the public.

The event is being organised in co-operation with the United Nations Development Programme, in Barbados.

The seminar follows a day of discussions with the public, to be held at UN House on Friday 15th.

Schedule:

  Welcome and Introduction 10.30am
Florence Seemungal Empirical Evidence in Support of Abolition of the Mandatory Death Penalty in Trinidad and Tobago 10.40am
Lizzie Seal Preliminary Findings from Focus Group Research on the Death Penalty in Barbados 11am
Lynsey Black The ‘Caribbean Death Penalty Project’ – Website, Current Status of the Death Penalty in Barbados, and Findings from the Online Survey 11.20am
Q&A General discussion with attendees about the death penalty 11.40am
LUNCH 12pm

Following the seminar, lunch will be provided for attendees.

Details:

The seminar will take place at UN House, from 10.30am to 12pm, on Monday 18th September. Please arrive a few minutes early to allow entry.

Please RSVP by Friday 8th September to Lynsey Black (lynsey.black@ucd.ie) if you wish to attend.

Address:              UN House, Marine Gardens, Christ Church

Have you been affected by the death penalty?

A central goal of the Caribbean Death Penalty Research project is to learn more about public opinion and to promote engagement on some of the main issues surrounding the death penalty. In this blog, we’re asking the below questions which relate to:

  • women and the death penalty
  • the families of persons sentenced to death
  • terrorism and the death penalty

In particular, we are keen to talk to people who have been affected by the death sentence – especially those who have a relative or friend who has been sentenced to death.

Please take a few minutes to read the questions – all feedback can be sent to Florence Seemungal at florence.seemungal@open.uwi.edu

Have you been affected by the death penalty?

Have you had a family member convicted for murder and sentenced to death? If yes, are you willing to be contacted for follow-up conversations?

Do you know someone who had a family member sentenced to death or executed by the Courts for a Criminal Conviction? If yes, can you put us in touch with them?

Please leave your contact details (email, Skype, WhatsApp, or phone).

Question 1

Fact: At present in most jurisdictions in the Caribbean region, a death sentence will not be imposed upon a defendant under the age of 21 years who has been convicted for murder. This means that this person can be punished, but not by hanging.

Your Opinion: Do you think that women who have been convicted for murder in the Caribbean (or in other parts of the world that retain the death penalty) should also be exempted from a death sentence and instead be given a non-death sentence? A non-death sentence could include life imprisonment or a fixed term of years in prison, or a non-custodial sentence.

Tell us about yourself: age, nationality, job, gender, and anything else you feel is relevant.

Question 2

Your Opinion: When a male or female prisoner is convicted for murder and sentenced to death, do you think that the families (spouse, children, or parents) of these condemned prisoners suffer negatively? Please indicate yes or no, and give your views. For example, if you indicated ‘yes’ explain in what way (or ways) the family members of persons sentenced to death or executed may suffer.

Tell us about yourself: age, nationality, job, gender, and anything else you feel is relevant.

Question 3

Fact: Guyana has approved new anti-terrorism laws which would see the death sentence imposed on persons convicted of certain terror offences.

Your Opinion: Do you think that persons who have been convicted of terror offences should be liable for the death penalty? Do you think that the death penalty is a deterrent against terrorism? Does having the death sentence make people ‘think twice’ about committing terrorist acts?

Tell us about yourself: age, nationality, job, gender, and anything else you feel is relevant.

Caribbean Death Penalty Research Blog

Hello and welcome to the blog of the Caribbean Death Penalty Research website.

This area of the website provides a space for people to contribute their own perspectives and add their voices and experience to the debate on the death penalty in the Caribbean. The blog will bring together the views of people such as those working in the criminal justice system, human rights campaigners, academics who study the death penalty, people who work in the media, and people affected by the death penalty system in the Caribbean. It will draw together these diverse perspectives to create a 360˚ impression of the death penalty in the Caribbean.

The blog will offer space for reflection and for meaningful engagement with the issues raised by capital punishment. Contributions will touch on many of the themes which are discussed elsewhere across the website. The site is organised into sections which provide information on the death penalty under the headings: Public Opinion, Media, Human Rights, and Alternatives to the Death Penalty. The Caribbean Death Penalty Research project therefore acts as a central resource for information and research on the death penalty and as a hub for community debate and the exchange of ideas.

The Caribbean Death Penalty Research website focuses on two countries, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados. These countries were chosen as both retain the mandatory death sentence for anyone convicted of murder. This places these nations among a very small number of countries globally which still uphold this mandatory sentence. Trinidad and Tobago was the only country in the Americas, with the exception of the US, to impose death sentences in 2015. Outside of the US, Trinidad and Tobago also has the largest death row population. Barbados, although it has a smaller number of people on death row, like Trinidad and Tobago retains the mandatory death sentence for murder despite promises of reform. These facts can explain the focus of the website, which takes these two countries as its starting point, but which draws also on the practices and developments in other Caribbean nations.

After decades in which there had been no research on the death penalty in the Caribbean, in recent years there has been greater interest in exploring the various aspects of the death penalty regime. Three pieces of research carried out by Roger Hood and Florence Seemungal, in particular, offered information for the first time on the death penalty in Trinidad and Tobago.

Hood and Seemungal’s research has flagged issues of real concern. The research has demonstrated serious failings in how the Trinidadian criminal justice system processes murder cases and in the capability of the police and the legal system to detect and prosecute suspects. This ensures that those sentenced to death for murder are those unlucky few who are convicted under an arbitrary and unfair system. Hood and Seemungal’s research on public opinion also questions the received wisdom that the death penalty enjoys overwhelming support in Trinidad and Tobago by demonstrating that this is subject to many caveats and qualifications. While many people express support for the mandatory death sentence for murder, this support diminishes when people are shown examples of murder cases and asked to select the most appropriate sentence. In addition to this, many of those working in the criminal justice system as lawyers or judges are not in favour of the mandatory death sentence and believe it is an excessive and disproportionate sentence which makes it harder to achieve a murder conviction. These pieces of research have begun the necessary work of finding out who is sentenced to death, and how people feel about the death penalty.

However, there remains a lack of information on the death penalty in the Caribbean. The website provides a resource which seeks to bridge this knowledge gap. As part of this project, the website provides an online survey which will offer people an opportunity to express their views on the death penalty in the Caribbean. This research will further contribute to what is known about the mandatory death sentence in Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados, but also on opinions about the death penalty across the Caribbean. As the research conducted by Hood and Seemungal has shown, research of this nature can question long-held assumptions about the death penalty, and offers new perspectives on a frequently taken for granted system that is often presumed to be both effective and grounded in popular support.

To this end, the website represents a further step in the increased momentum to critically investigate the death penalty in the Caribbean, and to understand its place in Caribbean culture.