It may have flashed on your screen for a second or so that a man was hanged for murder in St. Kitts on Dec. 19 -- the first execution in 10 years.
The execution closed out a year in which St. Kitts-Nevis saw 22 murders. The last killing of 2008 was particularly brazen and outrageous: a drive-by shooting on Nov. 30, outside of a nightclub in a village called Cayon. Two people were killed and four were injured. When you consider that the island's population is about 40,000, then you can appreciate that 22 in one year is a very high murder rate.
When I was in the Federation in 2002-2004 gun crimes were much less frequent, but the gang problem was in evidence. On Friday afternoons work sort of coasts to a halt in Basseterre, and people come out of offices and shops and linger about the street to socialize. Vendors sell treats and a local calypsonian sets up a speaker box and a mike and sells CDs of his own music. Some people hit the downtown bars for a beer or two, sitting at the outdoor tables or on the balconies, it's all very social and pleasant. But that's among the grownups. Walking among them are De Yout', small groups of young men from their early teens into their early twenties, on the same sidewalks at the same time. The two groups, the older workers and the troops of De Yout', don't really interact. They share the physical space but each group inhabits a social space remote from the other. Two parallel universes. Well before dark most of the workers and businesspeople will go home, some to rest and dress for the real "lime" that actually starts after ten, at the beach bars and nightclubs. And then later that night you heard that police had to break up a bottle-throwing war on those exact same respectable downtown streets.
One of the earliest editorials I wrote as a newspaper editor in St. Kitts deplored a trend I noticed in the gang attacks (some fatal, some not) that were occurring on the island. It was common for several attackers to jump on one individual. When David "Grizzly" Lawrence was killed in 2002, for example, it was five or six young guys who chased him out of a nightclub and stabbed him to death with knives and at least one ice pick. One of the accused said they attacked him because Lawrence had bumped into him while dancing.
But here's something about Lawrence. He had been a bodyguard and who knows what other functionary for Charles "Little Nut" Miller. It was Lawrence who was charged with killing the police officer Jude Matthew, who was helping the DEA keep an eye on Miller. Lawrence was tried three times for killing Matthew, and each time there was a hung jury. But in 2002, with Miller in federal prison in the U.S., Lawrence was a guy who had run with the biggest gangster, who was supposed to have killed a police officer, who had walked away free from three trials for murder, and who might have been enjoying political patronage, of the kind that Little Nut or Vivian Blake had enjoyed in Jamaica.
If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.
When the guys (six at first, but two were released without charge) who allegedly attacked Lawrence were arrested and charged, there were cheering crowds at the courthouse, their fans. The court reporter at the paper told me this, She didn’t like court reporting; her real interest was fashion and music and the “youth” beat. She asked me if she could refer to the suspects in her story as “The Fantastic Four.” I don’t know when I’ve ever taken so much satisfaction in saying, simply and bluntly, “No.” At subsequent court appearances of the Fantastic Four, the cheering fans faithfully attended.
Well, it would be worth doing what I have no means to do now: look at the number of convictions and the types of sentences that are given over the last 9-10 years, and – this is important – who keeps turning up in connection with some of these serious crimes, and the web of family relations and political allegiances to which they belong.
After the Nov. 30 shooting in Cayon, the Prime Minister, Denzil Douglas, made a very angry speech about violence and values in his weekly radio broadcast, "Ask the Prime Minister." People were not raising children with the care that they had when he was a boy, etc. Then there was a flurry of activity -- a "national consultation" and the hiring of a crime consultant, a former FBI agent, among other things -- and then, out of a clear blue sky, a notice of execution posted on the wall of the prison barely 24 hours before the deed was to be done.
The man who was executed was Charles LaPlace, aged 40, from the village of Fig Tree. He had killed his wife, Diana, in a fit of rage, the kind of rage that you see in, say, the tragedies of Euripides. There were witnesses, the neighbors who tried unsuccessfully to stop him.
That was one of a few what I guess you could call "monster" killings--as distinct from "gangster" killings that have occurred there. An enraged spouse or boyfriend attacks the woman in his life. I would not be surprised to learn that these crimes are the end of a pattern of domestic and relationship abuse. If you really wanted to prevent that kind of crime, you'd have domestic violence shelters and you would have maybe an educational campaign telling women to leave if they are physically abused, and then you'd have strong domestic violence laws and actually enforce them.
It was reasonable for a man under sentence of death to expect that the sentence would not be carried out, either because the sentence would be thrown out, or simply because a sort of inertia in the country’s justice system was tending that way. Even Jamaica, with its violence and extrajudicial killings and its recent re-endorsement of the death penalty, rarely carries out executions. Now, clearly, that state of affairs doesn't guarantee that someone won't be executed. But it does open the question of what a government is up to when it suddenly bucks its own trend.
That’s why I was struck by the abruptness of the proceedings in the hanging of Charles LaPlace. Later on Dec. 19, Dr. Douglas referred to the execution during the budget debate in Parliament.
“Another life taken. It is a human life, but we have to be certain that there is a deterrent among our people in taking another man’s life. We have a resolve to deal with the issue of crime and violence in this country,” said Prime Minister Douglas in the National Assembly during debate of the 2009 Budget for the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis.
But if you wanted to use the death penalty to deter people from committing gang crime, why not execute a person who committed one of those? Why hang a 40-year-old man who killed his wife in a fit of homicidal rage? Why kill a man who was not, whatever else he might have been, a gangster?
LaPlace had apparently not exhausted his appeals; he had missed the filing deadline. How was that possible?
Dr. Douglas, who is also Minister of National Security, disclosed that a Notice of Appeal was later filed with the Court of Appeal but was dismissed on the 29th October 2008 for being filed out of time.
LaPlace did not have a lot of money. Fig Tree is not a village of rich people. And where in other cases, family and friends might be tapped for help (not just money but influence) I think the revulsion that people felt at the crime they witnessed put that out of the question. In effect, he had been abandoned.
Second was possibly the reasonable assumption that justice would be considered served if LaPlace stayed in prison—that there was no urgency in the case, that the death sentence was in effect a sort of formality that would, in due course of time, be commuted to life, and since it would not be carried out, one could go about appealing it in a rather desultory way.
The third theory is that LaPlace’s lawyer was completely incompetent.
When a thing should not be done at all, it’s a moot point whether it can be done well or for right motives, but even if I were not completely and unreservedly opposed to the death penalty, I should consider this execution a sin against LaPlace and against justice.
LaPlace was considered disposable; his life could be made use of to send a message totally unrelated to anything he did. He could be made use of in this way because no one would mind. It was a sort of economical thinking at work, macabre, really. Make a statement against crime but make it cheaply, with minimum political cost.
What makes it even worse, to me, is that the “economy” of it is so narrow, the point to be gained so trivial and small. It was throwing a bit of red meat to that portion of the electorate that wanted red meat but didn’t want to pay for it. And in order to do that you had to cheapen the idea of human life and to deny Charles LaPlace his dignity – steal it from him. Because his dignity was his right to stand—even with the hangman’s noose around his neck--as a human being, and not as the object of small political calculations.
Amnesty International protested the execution, of course, and the government reacted with the usual windy, empty defensiveness--part bluster and part whining--with which Caribbean countries meet criticism of their human rights practices. So that was handled.
Worse was yet to come.
If you hang around me for any length of time sooner or later you will hear me use an old Jamaican word, butu. What is butu? Butu is the term you would use to describe a person completely unaware of how disgusting his own actions are until he happens across a three-page account of them in the pages of the Daily Mail, and sees those actions for the first time, not in the context of local, small political calculations, but as a narrative of squalid, callous fecklessness, laid before the eyes of the world: the prison guards playing cards and drinking, within earshot, while LaPlace lay in his cell, weeping and calling for his mother; the hangman a beach gigolo hired for the job and paid EC$1800. It just never occurred to anybody to preempt criticism by ensuring that the whole thing was conducted transparently with a dignified, thoughtful, and appropriately solemn sense of the occasion.
The people of these islands are painfully sensitive to criticism from outside. By which I do not necessarily mean they listen to it and learn: they just let loose the crazy. The Prime Minister responded, though he could hardly be said to offer a substantive refutation of the details.
“Executions are never supposed to be something that one celebrates no matter how many individuals or organizations can defend this act. Executions are serious; they are sober acts and should be treated as such and that is exactly how this was treated here in St. Kitts and Nevis last month -sober, reflective, serious.”
Douglas asserted that the January 10 “sensational submission to a sensationalist tabloid” could not dictate how the people of St. Kitts-Nevis are viewed, despite it being circulated to over two million people on its date of publication.
“That tabloid cannot define us as a people. We in St. Kitts-Nevis have accomplished a great deal, as did those who came before us. Let us bear that in mind as we continue to calmly move our great country forward…and [that paper] does not have the power to determine who we are and what we are.”
The local response to the article and Amnesty International’s condemnation of Laplace’s hanging has been considerable, with many individuals calling for the executions of other death row inmates to be expedited.
Indeed. Why let some newspaper do what they can do so well for themselves?