Sometimes, the death penalty may be warranted

The death penalty was abolished in Canada in 1976. Even in the ten years before that date, capital punishment was used only for the killing of on-duty police officers and prison guards.

Mostly, I agree with the policy. There have been many cases of wrongful conviction in Canada, which is a strong argument against the death penalty.

But sometimes, in cases where the guilt of the accused is established beyond a reasonable doubt, I could be persuaded to support the death penalty. This week, I feel that way about a local case which is making national news.

Four people were found dead in a car in the Rideau canal. Three of them were sisters, aged 19, 17, and 13.

Their parents and an 18-year-old brother are accused of murdering them.

The father, Mohammad Shafia, had two wives. The fourth murder victim, Rona Mohammad, was one of Mr. Shafia’s wives.

Reportedly, the parents disapproved of the boy that 19-year-old Zainab Shafia was dating. For this, they murdered her. That’s outrageous enough:  but what possible motive did the family have for murdering her two younger sisters and Ms. Mohammad?

The family originally lived in Afghanistan, where “honour killings” of “rebellious” girls is a repugnant cultural norm. But this case is extraordinary even by the standards of fundamentalist Islam.

As my colleague Les Perreaux, who has been to Afghanistan, wrote me last night, while killing a rebellious teenage daughter might fit with that view of justice, while killing the “other” wife might be understandable if hardly defensible, surely wiping out the lot of them, including the 13-year-old, is a stretch, even for the Afghan mind. “I can’t say I ever even heard of a mass family honour killing, even in Afghanistan,” Les wrote.

As I’ve already mentioned, three family members are accused of the crime. But is there any doubt that the father bears primary responsibility?

Mr. Shafia, a well-to-do businessman, was authoritarian and violent; Rona [his wife] feared for her life, her brother said.

Rona was unable to bear children — hence the need for Mr. Shafia to acquire a second wife. Polygamy is legal in Afghanistan. Here in Canada, where it is neither legal nor socially acceptable, the family passed off Mr. Shafia’s childless first wife as a cousin.

When it became apparent to Rona that she was an unsatisfactory wife, she asked for a divorce. Mr. Shafia refused to grant it.

His second wife is a veritable baby-making machine:  she has provided Mr. Shafia with seven children.

I am a strong believer in women’s equality. It seems to me that you can divide the world’s cultures into two camps:  those which respect women, and those which repress women.

Perhaps the single most telling test of a nation’s civilization is how women are treated.

Mr. Shafia’s cultural commitment is clear. It was once said of Herod the Great, “better to be his pig (Greek hus ) than his son (Greek huios )”. Likewise, better to be Mr. Shafia’s dog than his daughter.

Better his whore than his wife.

I could be persuaded to support the death penalty for this man, assuming that the evidence against him is overwhelmingly clear. Many details of the case have yet to be revealed. We don’t even know the cause of death:  although the four bodies were found in a car, submerged in the Rideau canal, autopsy results have not yet been released.

Earlier this week, Kingston Police Chief Stephen Tanner held a press conference to announce that Mr. Shafia, his second wife and his son were being charged with murder. He opened the press conference with a moment of silence to honour victims of domestic violence.

Amen to that.


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Bridgett
    Jul 26, 2009 @ 10:39:45

    I was coming here to raise argument with you. And although I remain rather staunchly anti-capital punishment, ya know, I just can’t get the energy up to argue about this one. How horrible. Shocking.


  2. Zayna
    Jul 26, 2009 @ 15:46:36

    I once heard, “You want to know how a man will treat you as a wife, first look to how he treats his dog and his mother (in that order). If he treats them both well, you’re in luck.”

    Gave me shivers when I heard it but I think for many women in this world, it is true.


  3. billarends
    Jul 28, 2009 @ 09:34:54

    I’m with Bridgett on this while I agree with the fact that honour killing is horrendous, the death penalty is just as bad, so arguing this would be difficult because part of me is saying such people need to be eradicated because they don’t value human life. What concerns me here as I mentioned in my article on Stephen Tanner in my Blog , is that the case is so horrendous to think about that no one has considered that there may be more to it and the Shafia family my be innocent of the crime. I know that there may be damn good evidence that this man and family did this but the courts decide the case not the police, and the accused have not as yet seen the inside of a court room. My concept of policing is that the police collect the evidence and the suspects and arrest them and turn them over to the courts. Police might have an obligation to find the guilty, but a judge, judges them hence the name. I had to think about this a few months ago. I was called to be a juror in a murder trial and during selection I had to answer one question from the defence (the accused – as he was representing himself) he asked me if his conversion to Christianity from Islam would affect my judgment of him. Before I went in to answer the question I kept thinking that until I have any other proof this guy is innocent. The answer I gave was “No your faith or mine will not influence my decision.” This was the answer I believed to be the most true, because I believe in the system first. My belief in the system was rocked when the accused accepted this impartial position but the crown didn’t and I was excused from the jury. The only reasons I can see are that the crown wanted a biased person, or they didn’t believe in my sincerity. Hopefully it was the latter of the two.


  4. billarends
    Jul 28, 2009 @ 09:40:48

    One last note if the crown wanted a biased juror in the case I mentioned above , then do we trust the crown with the power of life and death? Thus I can’t support the death penalty. I beleive in the system but don’t trust those that operate the machine so to speak.


  5. Bridgett
    Jul 28, 2009 @ 11:36:11

    I guess I can say this, upon reflection. If we allow capital punishment in a case like this (I’m sitting in Missouri, USA, so this could have been a capital case if it happened here), then we allow it in cases where it makes no sense (the suspect/guilty party is schizophrenic. Or has an IQ of 80, or is convicted on accomplice testimony, or has bad representation, or so forth). It opens the door to cases where it doesn’t belong. No matter what the original intent may have been.

    My sisters had a good friend who was murdered back on ’04. His murderer was a police officer in the town where they lived (and it was murder–not like an accidental shooting in the line of duty kind of thing–he cut his throat and left him in a gangway); it was a messy case and horrible to watch from the sidelines. The death penalty was never on the table–the special prosecutor who was brought in to try the case (because all the prosecutors in the county knew the officer, after all) never suggested that it should have been. It is easy to seek vengeance, trust me, and to catch yourself wanting the accused to suffer the way the victim did. But in the end, justice isn’t about revenge. Otherwise it’s no better than an honor killing.


    • billarends
      Jul 28, 2009 @ 11:44:26

      Bridgetts comment highlights in more than its content why we should not have the death penalty. She notes that in the case she describes that a “special prosecutor …was brought in to try the case (because all the prosecutors in the county knew the officer, after all).” Do we dare trust a system that does not trust itself?


  6. billarends
    Jul 29, 2009 @ 11:05:51

    In the news Today Shafia’s lawyer said his client will plead not guilty to all charges. He added that he and lawyers for the other accused may try to move the trial to another city on grounds that police in Kingston have ,b> swayed public opinion against his client.


  7. Stephen
    Jul 29, 2009 @ 16:43:50

    My statement, “I could be persuaded to support the death penalty [in this particular instance]” shouldn’t be read as a ringing endorsement of the death penalty.

    Insofar as I might support it in a case like this one, my motives have nothing to do with vengeance. As Gandhi famously said, “an eye for an eye” would end with all of us blinded.

    I think the motivations for criminal punishment of all sorts are crude and highly problematic. That also applies with respect to capital punishment. Balancing out the scales of cosmic justice (the death of the murderer as a counterweight to the death of the victim) is quite irrational. And I’m not persuaded that it serves a deterrence value, since criminals tend to assume they can get away with their crimes. Finally, rehabilitation is a canard, since prison only hardens and embitters people, and exposes them to people with ideas more evil than their own.

    The only rationale that makes sense to me is, protection of the public. And you have to admit, execution ensures that the murderer will never murder again. I view it as the murderer forfeiting his or her life by his actions.

    Still, I’m hardly sold on the idea of capital punishment, for the various reasons the two of you have outlined in your comments (plus one that I mentioned in the post).

    I will never campaign in support of capital punishment — I prefer Canada’s laws as they are. But if the guilt of this man were absolutely clear, and someone proposed the death sentence for him — my response would be, good riddance!

    Bill: you’re certainly right that he hasn’t been proven guilty yet. I am inclined to assume that the police officer wouldn’t have behaved like this without good reason. But if, in fact, the police have settled on his guilt falsely, it wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has occurred.


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