WHEN THE first conscience vote on the retention of the death penalty was held in 1979, the statute was barely retained.
D.K. Duncan and Portia Simpson Miller were the only members of that Parliament who still sit in the House. Simpson Miller was absent from the House for the debate and vote, but Duncan contributed to the debate and voted, not once, but twice.
The motions before the House were for "capital punishment to be suspended pending a detailed study, assessment and report of its sociological and psychological effect", and "for capital punishment to be retained".
Hansard - parliamentary records - suggests the debate, opened by then National Security Minister Dudley Thompson, was a lively, contentious, and, in some respects, emotive affair.
'My people say to hang'
Alva Ross, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) member of parliament (MP) for South East St Mary, made his position known even before Thompson could begin the debate.
"My people say to hang," the parliamentary records report Ross as saying.
It was to lay the platform for Thompson, who would make an argument for the retention of capital punishment.
"...We are in Jamaica where, to many people, life is cheap, and we must lift that veil of terror and restore the smiling faces that used to be on Jamaicans," Thompson said as he urged legislators to keep the rope.
"There are some people in this country who only fear execution and nothing else; they fear the rope," Thompson added.
And, if that were not enough, Thompson stopped short of telling members that innocent blood would be on their hands if they refused to retain the death penalty.
Said Thompson: "I utter a clear warning to those responsible for the decent citizens of this country that, were they to lift that fear from the wrongdoer, so that he knows that there is one more section of the community on his side, you would have on your conscience the death of every man who is killed by a murderer who would not have been murdered if you did not have the bleeding hearts and humane writers."
Government MP, Ferdie Neita, who voted to retain capital punishment, described murderous criminals as a "new breed of man, a new breed of animal in the society".
"This breed of animal is like a cancer in the society and must be eradicated," Neita said.
While admitting that the treatment of death-row prisoners, in some cases, amounted to cruel and inhumane punishment, Neita said Parliament had a responsibility to ensure that murderers paid for their crime with their lives.
"I would request that all of us in here make sure that we vote for the law to be carried out as it is now stated, and perhaps we can look at the whole system of justice, where that is concerned, at some later day when the society has returned to normality," Neita said.
JLP MP Dr Neville Gallimore refused to buy the argument that the death penalty would solve the crime problem.
"Let us get scientific data after properly investigating from a sociological standpoint and let us find out what is best for our society and let us do it and let our conscience be clear and that our brother's blood be not on our shoulders," Gallimore urged.
Revenge cannot be factored into decision
Then Prime Minister Michael Manley, who also voted to abolish capital punishment, told the house that emotion should not be at the centre of their thought process.
"In this day and age, revenge cannot be the emotive force in determining a system of punishment, and, therefore, revenge, with all due respect, cannot be the reason for either having capital punishment or not having capital punishment," Manley said.
When the debate ended and the clerk of the House counted the votes after the divide, capital punishment remained on the country's books.
Twenty-four MPs had voted for its retention and 18 for its abolition. PNP MP Percival Minott refused to vote.
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