Friday, 21 August 2009

Justice Tempered with Mercy

I was hoping that our blog would be non-political. I’m not sure I can add much to the passionate opinions voiced in many blogs on the release of Ali al Megrahi. But it’s not often that Scottish and United States interests clash in such a visible way. Perhaps our friends in the States would like to read how people view the release on this side of the pond. In American media there’s widespread disbelief and condemnation of Scotland over the release of the one man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing where 270 people lost their lives, of which 189 were Americans --- the view that that even if he was terminally ill, at least he should die in jail.

Sentiments are different here. Most Scottish people polled do not believe Ali al Megrahi is guilty of the atrocity; rather,that he is a convenient scapegoat, a pawn chosen to take the fall so that Libyan and US/UK relations could be normalized. A lot of undiscovered oil in Libya was at stake. Secondly, people are divided over whether it serves any purpose to keep a terminally ill convicted murderer in jail for the last days of his life. Even a mass murderer. Every blogger has their opinion.

Questions about Megrahi’s guilt grew soon after his conviction. The following story by the BBC summarizes the issues that include the possibility of mishandled forensic evidence, mistaken identity, evidence withheld by the police, Megrahi’s possible motives --- whether he was acting alone. The British justice system is generally very thorough about conducting an appeal or an inquiry into how well the system works. An appeal had been filed, but because of Megrahi’s ill health, he would have been dead before the appeal could start. Dropping the appeal is the worst possible outcome for this affair, because now we will never know if Megrahi was guilty.

A recent US Supreme Court decision in the case of Troy Davis (See NY times story)
points to another difference in which guilt or innocence is viewed in Scotland and in the States. Justices Scalia and Thomas point out that the US constitution does not prohibit the execution of people who can prove they are innocent. What counts is whether the legal process was followed correctly. Luckily the court majority, and hopefully most Americans do not agree with this sentiment, and a court decision, rather than a constitutional amendment will suffice to clear up whether people who are factually innocent may be executed. In the UK such arguments are viewed as shocking. Whether Megrahi was guilty or innocent does matter. It’s not enough to lock up a scapegoat and call the job done, then let him die in jail because he’s the only one we have. Unfortunately, we’ll never know.

If he is guilty, should he die in jail, or be released? In the UK it’s common to release a terminally ill offender who has only a month or so to live. Keeping him locked up is viewed as a moot point. Less weight is placed on retribution as the reason for locking someone up, especially someone who is terminally ill. Would his death in jail, a month from now, ease the suffering of the many victims of the Lockerbie bombing? My experience working with victims of violent crime in Texas, suggests that executing an offender rarely brings solace to the bereaved. Often they go away feeling that the offender did not suffer enough. On the other hand I met many people who lost a husband or children to a violent act, and who opposed the execution of the offender. See the following page for such testimonies :
In the UK, those who lost a family member in the Lockerbie bombing do not speak with one voice about Megrahi’s release. Even those who believe he is guilty.

With some justification, one can argue that the role of the judicial system is justice, and not mercy. Especially to someone convicted of mass murder. Yet in both the US and in the UK we do not endorse cruel and unusual punishments. Recently the US Supreme Court ordered a moratorium on executions until they could establish whether lethal injection, the main method for executions in the US, is a humane --- painless method. We make a show of treating our prisoners humanely, because we’re embarrassed to do otherwise. When discovered, we try and cover it up. Like it or not, as societies we do believe in justice tempered by mercy.

1 comment:

  1. I'm really not sure what to think about this one. A couple of thoughts spring to mind though:

    If Megrahi was well enough to walk on and off a long-haul flight, he may be terminally ill but he's certainly not at death's door. Very few, if any, of my patients are that well.

    It seems, from what I've heard on the radio today, that there's been a fair bit of behind-the-scenes liaising going on between British government ministers (e.g. the once again increasingly ubiquitous Peter Mandelson) and Libyan officials of late. Could we be seeing here about yet another act of judicial convenience in order to ease economic relations between the UK and Libya?

    The distasteful scenes on Megrahi's disembarkation were easy to predict. These will no doubt have been galling in the extreme for many of the affected families. Veritably cruel and unusual in fact, I would say. This distress should have been put into the balance against Megrahi's own at dying in prison (in comfort and with excellent medical care, by the way) away from his family.