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KINGSTON, Oct 6 2006 (IPS) - Carl McHargh sports twenty-three stab wounds on his body which he received while he was sitting on death row in the Spanish Town District Prison.
In 2004, McHargh was convicted and sentenced to death along with another man, Brian Rankin, for the shooting deaths of two men on the basis of testimony of a single witness.
But the 36-year old he says had met neither his alleged co-conspirator nor the man who accused him, and that the murder of the two men that steamy July night was a crime he did not commit. A court eventually agreed, and McHargh and Rankin were freed in June.
“There’s a lot of corruption in our judicial system, the judges, the police, they can be easily bought,’ says McHargh, an articulate man who had worked as a customs broker until his arrest. “The police did not want to come out with the truth of why this man was killed.”
McHargh’s case vividly illustrates the complexities of a current debate raging in Jamaica regarding the death penalty, especially because its critics say it is a final and permanent sanction put into the hands of fallible humans and an imperfect system.
Though Jamaica has maintained a moratorium on executions since 1988, the country’s spiralling crime rate, which saw a record 1,650 people murdered last year on this island of just under 3 million, has prompted calls from members of both the ruling People’s National Party (PNP) and Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) to re-introduce hanging as a form of capital punishment.
A powerful PNP Senator, Trevor Munroe, has called for the death penalty against child murderers, after observing that there were 105 murders of minors in Jamaica in 2005.
In a column last year in the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper, Robert Buddan, a noted lecturer on Caribbean politics at the University of the West Indies in Kingston and a death penalty supporter, said that in a recent UN human development index, Jamaica had slipped 19 places. That was because, he said, security in the country had declined so badly. He posited that, “we must ask which matters more – the human rights of criminals or the human development of law-abiding citizens?”
Jamaica’s parliament now is debating whether it will retain or remove the death penalty from the nation’s new Charter of Rights Bill, though any definitive action is unlikely until after the election.
“In my experience working in Jamaica, it would be a complete and utter waste of time to say to these young men of violence that, if they kill, the likelihood is that they will be killed by the state, because they don’t expect to live long,” says Mark Shields, a deputy commissioner for crime for the Jamaica Constabulary Force. “They expect to either die at the hand of a police firearm or at another criminal gang’s firearm.”
Historically in Jamaica, capital murder, or, first degree murder, meant an automatic death sentence, while non-capital murder, such as manslaughter, was automatic life in prison.
In 2004, lawyers for the Independent Jamaica Council for Human Rights (IJCHR) – formed to fight for the abolition of the death penalty – argued successfully to the country’s highest court of appeal, that Jamaica’s mandatory death sentences for capital murder were unconstitutional.
Now the rules state that judges can impose a life sentence, while specifying a certain number of years before the convicted can apply for parole. Alternatively, a judge can sentence a prisoner to a term of years of 15 years imprisonment or more.
The number of people on Jamaica’s death row subsequently fell from 50 to 8, all of whom now have their sentences or convictions on appeal. The IJCHR is currently working to add a simple “right to life” clause to the new Charter of Rights Bill that would make the death penalty unconstitutional.
“One of our biggest problems is that the crime rate scares people, and when they get scared they ask for protection and they really don’t care where it comes from or how it comes,” says Carolyn Gomes, director of Jamaicans for Justice, another human rights organisation. “And that is used to justify illegal action by the police.”
As an alternative to the death penalty, Gomes and others believe the country should focus on eliminating corruption and improving policing.
Jamaican police numbers suggest that new, more professional policing practices may have begun to put a dent in the island’s crime rate. According to the statistics, the number of homicides in violent Western Kingston this year stands at 55, down from 78 the year before. On the island as a whole, 895 murders have been committed so far this year, down from 1196 at this time a year ago.
The cruel vagaries of death penalty cases in the country, though, are brought into stark relief by the case of McHargh.
One of the slain men was Tahj Burrell, the son of Captain Horace Burrell, a former Jamaican army officer and former president of the Jamaica Football Federation. The other, Jason Eldridge, was the son of a retired Assistant Commissioner of Police.
McHargh willingly gave a statement to police as to his whereabouts on the night of the murder – he said he was playing pool in the company of a policeman. A few weeks after the killings, a 1 million $ JA reward was offered for information leading to the arrest of anyone involved in the murder
McHargh was then arrested in September 1999 as police advanced a story that he was jealous of the nature of the relationship Tahj Burrell had with Janice Maxwell, McHargh’s former fiancée. This was despite the fact that both McHargh and Maxwell stated that their relationship was friendly and that no romance existed between Burrell and Maxwell.
McHargh spent most of the next seven years in jail. While in prison, another inmate attacked him with a knife, resulting in the scars that now criss-cross his body. Associates of the assailant told McHargh they had received money from a warden to implement a contract formulated outside the prison to kill him, possibly by those seeking to avenge Burrell’s killing.
Ordered released on May 31st, McHargh was kept in prison an extra day without explanation in what he says he feared would be another attempt on his life.
“The guys who attacked told me that the job was not finished, because I’m still alive,” says McHargh, as he sits in his mother’s house in a Kingston suburb, photos of his two children lining the walls. “A lot of people are very concerned. High-ranking policemen from the force that I have met during the years tell me that I should be very careful because I am a target.”
He has reason to believe that is true. Rankin, McHargh’s co-defendant in the case, was gunned down on the streets of Kingston in September.
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