Public Opinion in Trinidad and Tobago

Norris and Chadee (2001)

Norris and Chadee found that among college students, 86.7% of males and 78.4% of females in Saint Augustine, Trinidad, favoured capital punishment in cases of first degree murder. The authors also concluded that views were strongly held and that the topic was one of considerable interest and debate as no students marked the ‘No Opinion’ box.

ANSA McAL Psychological Research Centre (2011)

A telephone poll conducted in February 2011 by ANSA McAL Psychological Research Centre of the University of the West Indies found that 19% of those surveyed were not in favour of the resumption of hangings, 72% said they were in favour of the resumption of hangings, and 9% said they didn’t know (‘Bring back hangings’, Trinidad Guardian, 20 February 2011).

However, when asked whether they believed resuming hangings would reduce serious crime, 64% said yes, while 27% said no. Therefore, despite 72% support for the resumption of hanging, fewer people believe it to be an effective deterrent to violent crime.

The poll also found disparity between ethnic groups, with Indo-Caribbean persons more likely than Afro-Caribbean or Mixed to support the resumption of hanging. Men were also more likely to support resumption than women.

Overall, 54% of respondents rated the government’s response to violent crime as ‘Poor’ or ‘Very poor’. Another 32% rated it as ‘Fair’, while only 14% rated it as ‘Good’ or ‘Excellent’.

Roger Hood and Florence Seemungal (2011)

Roger Hood and Florence Seemungal (2011) surveyed a representative sample of 1,000 citizens of Trinidad in November and December 2010. The results of the survey provided a nuanced view of public opinion.

Hood and Seemungal found that despite popular support for the death penalty, only a minority of the public supported the current law, namely, the mandatory death penalty, for all murders.

Overall, 89% of respondents were in favour of the death penalty in some form, 11% of people were opposed to the death penalty in principle and favoured immediate abolition.

However, despite 89% of persons supporting the death penalty in some form, only 26% supported the current mandatory death penalty for murder.

People expressed support for the death penalty for a variety of reasons; some expressed a retributive rationale, i.e. a ‘life for a life’. Approximately one in 10 supported the death penalty because of the view it acted as a deterrent, however the majority supported the death penalty regardless of any crime fighting value.

Sixty-three per cent of persons favoured a discretionary death penalty system. Those who favoured a discretionary death penalty believed that not all murders were the same, that some murders were worse than others, and that there should be difference made in the sentence between different types of murder. This group expressed the view that not everyone who committed a murder ‘deserved to die’.

Even among people who favoured the mandatory death penalty for murder, only a minority, 36%, thought that increasing the number of executions was an effective means of controlling violent crime. In fact, 36% of those who favoured the mandatory death penalty actually ranked ‘a greater number of executions’ as the least likely policy to reduce violent crimes. This seems that there is little faith in the policy usefulness of the mandatory death penalty even among those who support it.

Among those who favoured a discretionary system, only 18% of persons believed that more executions could tackle violent crime.

When people were asked what they thought would be an effective policy for controlling violent crime, the most common answer was ‘better moral education of young people’, which 43% of people ranked first. Another 22% said ‘more effective policing’, only 21% of people said a greater number of executions would be an effective policy.

The scenario of innocent persons being executed was put to people who favoured the mandatory death penalty; when asked about their support for it if proof could be found to show that an innocent person had been executed, only 39% would still favour it strongly, while another 16% would still favour it ‘somewhat’.

When the scenario of an innocent person being executed was put to the entire sample, only 15% expressed support for the mandatory death penalty.

Respondents also believed that juries would be more likely to convict for murder rather than manslaughter if the mandatory death penalty was abolished; in fact, nearly 73% expressed the view that the mandatory penalty acted as a barrier for juries.

Case Studies

Respondents were shown three hypothetical cases involving killings, each of which had two alternatives, one example in which mitigating factors were present, and one without any mitigating element (mitigating factors included age and previous good character). Respondents were asked to select the most appropriate penalty in each case.

Just under half, or 49%, of the decisions made in these hypothetical cases resulted in the death penalty being imposed. However, only 1 in 5, or 20%, of respondents believed that the death penalty was the appropriate penalty in all three scenarios they were shown. Instead, 25% did not impose death in any of the three cases they were given. In none of the cases in which there were mitigating circumstances, did a majority of those reaching a decision choose death (even including drugs-related cases and a violent robbery-murder with a firearm).

This led the Hood and Seemungal to conclude:

‘This suggests that Trinidadians would be unlikely to support a change in the law which limited the mandatory death penalty even to such a limited category as those committed during a violent felony.’

Regarding the issue of joint enterprise (under which someone can be found guilty of murder who neither physically harmed the victim or even intended his death, see Doctrine of Joint Enterprise and the Felony Murder Rule) less than half of the respondents thought that the death penalty was a suitable punishment for someone who had not actually caused the death.

Conclusions

Hood and Seemungal concluded that the study’s findings:

‘strongly support the abolition of the mandatory penalty and its replacement for the time-being until full abolition may be achieved, by a fairer and more parsimonious discretionary system.’

The research showed that the death penalty was a topic of considerable interest in Trinidad, 42% were ‘Very interested’ and 39% were ‘Interested’. Sixty per cent said it was something they discussed several times a year. Despite this interest, Trinidadians did not feel well informed and 43% knew little about the death penalty in their country, while 4% said they knew nothing.

The authors concluded that public support for complete abolition of the death penalty was low. Hood and Seemungal also found that respondents were generally unmoved by statements regarding the trend in other jurisdictions; the suspicion with which the larger ‘human rights’ discourse is viewed by some is also evident in the analysis of the media coverage of the death penalty in Trinidad and Tobago.

Like the telephone poll cited above (ANSAL McAL Psychological Research Centre, 2011), Hood and Seemungal also found differences in support of the mandatory death penalty according to ethnic origin, 34% of persons of East Indian or Trinidadian descent supported it compared to 19% of those of African descent. Among religious groupings, support for the mandatory death penalty was highest among Hindus, at 38%.

Conclusion

The research on public opinion in Trinidad and Tobago is supportive of the contention that most people are in favour of the death penalty. However, support was often conditional on other factors, and although many people expressed support for the death penalty, this was often partial or related to certain categories of murder only. In addition to the qualified nature of the support, Hood and Seemungal (2011) demonstrated that when people were asked to provide appropriate sentences in hypothetical case studies, many people chose not to impose death at all, even among those who supported the mandatory death penalty.

The simplistic conclusion that death penalty support is strong in Trinidad and Tobago is therefore misleading, and more research is needed to elaborate further on the structure of public opinion.

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