Better living through legal lynching

commentary posted 2016-07-02 - last updated 2016-12-20
Taliban execute Zarmeena in Kabul in 1999
Taliban execute Zarmeena in Kabul in 1999. From Wikimedia

The execution was implemented to help restore law and order in the society, to restore the public's confidence. Society's security and safety was firmly under government control.

On May 11, 2016 China Post reported:

In a surprise announcement, the Justice Ministry last night confirmed the execution of Cheng Chieh (鄭捷), the killer who committed the grisly stabbing spree on the Taipei MRT in 2014. The shooting execution, which took place only 18 days after the Supreme Court finalized his death sentence, marked one of the speediest executions of a death penalty prisoner in the history of Taiwan.

Justice Minister Luo Ying-shay (羅瑩雪) reportedly signed the execution order before 5 p.m. Three shots were fired between 8:47 p.m. and 8:51 p.m. to put an end to the 23-year-old's life.

Death Penalty: ritual of power, incentive to suicidal rampage

The public execution is to be understood not only as a judicial but also as a political ritual. It belongs, even in minor cases, to the ceremonies by which power is manifested.
-- Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 1975

In a media interview, Justice Minister Luo Ying-shay (羅瑩雪) was asked who decided that the execution of 23-year-old Cheng Chieh (鄭捷) should be given priority (over cases of Taiwan's 42 other death row inmates). She replied: It was I who decided to carry out the execution of Cheng Chieh ahead of other pending cases. This case damaged our society and made people fear for their personal safety in public places, so it had to be prioritized ahead of other cases. My colleagues in the justice ministry all supported this decision. The execution was implemented to help restore law and order in the society, she added. So the implication was that the move was to restore the public's confidence, that society's security and safety was firmly under government control.

Yet, in the same interview she added: “The death sentence was given by Cheng Chieh to himself". According to prosecutors, that is pretty close to a statement of fact, as they claim during interrogation, he informed them that he had set out to kill people so he would be given death penalty in return. “I wanted to commit suicide, but I’m afraid it would hurt too much.”

Moreover, Luo said she knew that some death row inmates actually prefer to be executed sooner than later, and Cheng was one of them. So, at the same time that the state is touting execution as an exhibition of state control, it also tells us that the killer achieved precisely what he set out to get: a speedy state-assisted suicide. It's not clear why the public should feel secure in the knowledge that government officials act as puppets in the hands of a psychotic killer, but perhaps it is a familiar comfort zone for some.

Finally, Luo added, Cheng's death would serve as a reminder for those tempted to kill for the same reasons. Right - for those tempted to kill for the same reason as Cheng (speedy state-assisted suicide), Cheng's death serves as a reminder: it works like a charm! Everybody feel safer now?

The New Calculus of Killing:
Kill 'em all, let the Buddha sort 'em out

Luo in meditation

When asked about her response to this execution, the justice minister replied: that her mood was peaceful as usual, and as a Buddhist, she would sit in meditation and practice Pariṇāmanā or 'dedication' to transfer her accumulation of merit to those who were executed during her term.

She did not state a source for her calculations, i.e. how she had determined that she had an "accumulation of merit" to transfer. But it's unlikely that she consulted Tzu Chi Buddhist Master Shih Chao-hui (釋昭慧), who wrote these words on the death penalty: ...the Buddha has stated very clearly that 'no killing' is the first rule of the five basic moral ethics (the Five Precepts). It is absolutely impossible for Buddha to speak favorably of 'solving problems through killing'. Killings will only lead to more is not necessary for the victims and their family members to take revenge personally, and no third parties are needed to join into the network of killing. Their own karma will not let them run away.

She also did not state if she personally witnessed the killings of those 12 persons who were executed during her term, before transferring her presumed accumulation of merit to them. Or would that disturb her peaceful mood? Move over, ISIS: make way for yet another loony using mass-murder as a path to religious paradise...

Nonetheless, according to an Apple Daily report (Chinese), she did realize she is subject to criticism, and had this to say: 「至於批評都一定會有,因為有些人只是因為我就是我,就是會想要批評」 which roughly translates to: As for criticism, there surely will be criticism. Merely because I am me, some people will want to criticize.

An interesting supposition. It is not difficult to imagine how some people might take a personal disliking to anyone spewing such nauseating, pompous, egocentric stench of the sort attributed to the former justice minister. It is undoubtably true, however, that for other people the criticism is not personal. They criticize her because of her role as the spokesperson and most prominent agent of the state's cynical cold-blooded killing machine, whose actions and words betray a government's monstrous callousness and bizarre delusional state, capable of a degree of violence that makes Cheng's brutal rampage look like Bambi grazing.

Compassion in action

Notify the family?

Taipei Times reported: Cheng’s lawyers [...] tried to win a last-minute reprieve for their client by submitting an extraordinary appeal to the prosecutor-general on Tuesday night, seeking a stay of execution.

However, the document arrived at the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office at 9pm, 13 minutes after Cheng’s execution, with the first gunshot fired by the executioner at 8:47pm.

The defense lawyers said in a statement that the judiciary had violated judicial procedure throughout the case and kept the decision to order Cheng’s execution secret, adding that they were in the process of filing for an extraordinary appeal, seeking a retrial and wanted a constitutional interpretation by the Council of Grand Justices.

“The Ministry of Justice carried out the execution swiftly and did not contact the family of the accused or defense lawyers. This resulted in the accused not having sufficient time to allow the defense to initiate ‘criminal special aid procedures,’ and this is a deprivation of the accused right to life. It has violated international human rights conventions, and we regret what has taken place,” the lawyers said.

Bullet through the heart of knowledge

A concern that we expect governments to have in the aftermath of an attack - regardless of whether the attack comes from another government, terrorists, or a psychotic citizen - is: how to minimize the risk of more attacks. Clearly, the hasty execution also killed any further investigations of what motivated the action - investigations that might have helped to stem growth in suicidal/murderous youth in Taiwan.

This concern was raised by one of the surviving victims of Cheng's attack (see article in Chinese), who stated she was stunned by the rapid execution, and suspected political manipulation. The victim, a teacher, argued that the focus should be on education and prevention rather than execution, and that she'd always hoped to visit Cheng in prison, for in-depth study of his thinking (In fact, advocates of "restorative justice" argue that bringing together the person responsible for harm with the person harmed can also faciltate rehabilitation on all sides).

Claire Wang, who witnessed the murder of her 4-year-old daughter in Taiwan's latest shocking random atrocity, also expressed shock and dismay at the rapid execution of Cheng: [...] prior to the execution, what did the government do? Did it go to analyze and understand Why? [...] Cheng Chieh was executed very quickly. That means that just like that, we lost a subject we could study and understand. He’s dead. Now what? Do we continue to let this kind of thing happen? Do we continue rapidly executing people??

An Apple Daily editorial also pointed out that questions linger on after the execution: One relevant question is how does a young man like Cheng, from an average middle­-class family, become a random killer? What problems did he experience during early childhood, his school years and in his relationships?

After his arrest in 2014 for the MRT killings, he told investigators that he had developed a hatred for two female classmates in elementary school and started thinking back then about killing people [...]

Cheng was a 21­-year[-old] student at Tunghai University when he launched the random attack on passengers in the Taipei metro, killing four people and injuring 22 others.

Had there been any intervention in his life in the long period between elementary school and university, would his desire to kill have abated and the course of his actions changed?

The crux of this case is not about the merits or demerits of capital punishment but rather the issue of how people like Cheng have become the norm in Taiwan society.

In the absence of an answer to that question, one must ask why Cheng was executed so hastily, just 19 days after the Supreme Court gave a ruling that upheld the death sentence against him.

Our psychologists, educationists and criminologists did not have time to study the case in depth to gain information that could have been useful in the future.

Cheng's execution may appear to have been a matter of justice being served, but was it really?

Taiwan's Death Row Jesters

Death Penalty pacifier
English translation added. Original cartoon here

A post in the online magazine New Bloom explored the possible political motivations for the execution, first noting: Cheng’s execution would be the shortest period of time between a crime committed and execution in the post-martial law period, at 23 months.

The post then reminds readers: Shortly before the 2014 subway killing and in the middle of the political crisis prompted by the Sunflower Movement occupation of the Legislative Yuan, five death row inmates were executed in April 29, 2014.

Back then, The Diplomat reported: Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice on April 29 ordered the sudden execution of five individuals on death row in a move that has been widely seen as an attempt to distract the public amid snowballing crises over nuclear energy, a trade pact with China and a proposed experimental free-trade zone.

This view was given further support in a May 22 Taipei Times editorial titled Execution as a means of pacifying the people, where Wu Ching-chin (吳景欽), associate professor and chair of Aletheia University’s law department, explains that: since the law does not specify a deadline for the [justice] minister’s approval of a death sentence, whether to carry out the sentence and how long that decision takes is at the minister’s discretion.

He goes on to explain that ministry regulations for reviewing death sentences: ...lack a legal basis, it is also dependent on the arbitrary decision of the person in charge. Death row inmates have practically become tools for the government to divert public attention or reduce outrage.


Disorder in the Court, Taiwan-style

Psychiatric disorder in the mind of the beholder: Taiwan executes youth 18 days after Supreme Court rules that randomly stabbing and slashing strangers to death was a sane act.