Professor Emeritus Roger Hood’s report on The Death Penalty in Malaysia: Public Opinion on the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking, murder and firearms offences, commissioned and published in July 2013 by The Death Penalty Project in London, has been discussed recently in the Malaysian Parliament and in the Malaysian press.

This major survey of the views of a representative sample of 1,535 Malaysian citizens, carried out through face-to face interviews by Ipsos Malaysia in November and December 2012, showed that there was very little public support for the law which requires that a mandatory death penalty should be imposed on all persons convicted for murder, trafficking in drugs and for certain non-fatal firearms offences. Although a large majority said they were in favour of the death penalty — 91% for murder, between 74% and 80% for drug trafficking, and 83% for firearms offences— a much lower proportion, 56%, said they were in favour (50% strongly in favour) of the mandatory death penalty for murder and only between 25% and 44% for drug trafficking and 45% for firearms offences.

The level of support was considerably lower, both for the death penalty in general and for the mandatory death penalty in particular, when respondents were asked to say what the sentence should be for a number of ‘scenarios’ cases presented to them that were typical of crimes that appear in court. When judging cases of murder the highest proportion to choose death as the most appropriate penalty was 65% for a recidivist robber who shot a storekeeper in the head; and in one case of domestic murder only 14% chose death. Of the 56% who had said they favoured the mandatory death sentence for murder only one in seven thought that the death penalty was the right sentence for all the murder cases they were asked to judge, the majority used their discretion to fit the punishment to the circumstances of the crime.

Thus only one in 12 citizens (8%) of the total sample favoured the mandatory death sentence for murder when they were asked to judge real cases. When judging cases of drug trafficking, the highest proportion choosing the death penalty was 29% and this was for attempting to smuggle 25 kilos of heroin into the country and only 1 in 12 respondents thought that death was the correct penalty for all the drug trafficking cases they judged. As regards a firearms act offence of a burglar shooting and wounding a householder only 20% chose death as the appropriate sentence.

Finally, when we analysed the sentences imposed on all 12 cases that citizens were asked to judge, each of them subject to the mandatory death penalty in law, only just over one in a 100 (1.2%) would have sentenced all of them to death.

Given that no system can absolutely guarantee that an innocent person will never be executed, it should be noted that when citizens were asked if they would favour the death penalty if it were proven that innocent persons had been executed, the proportion fell to 33% for murder and even lower for drug trafficking and firearms offences (26% and 23% respectively).

Finally, only a minority ranked ‘greater number of executions’ as the most effective policy likely to reduce very violent crimes leading to death or drug trafficking (12%-15% respectively), the majority favouring better moral education and more effective policing— in other words, preventive rather than excessive punitive measures.

Taken as a whole, the findings of this opinion poll shows that the majority of Malaysian citizens favoured a discretionary death penalty for murder, and that only a minority favoured use of the death penalty at all when presented with typical cases of drug trafficking and non-fatal firearms offences. The conclusion is that public opinion should not be presented as if it were a barrier to reform of the mandatory capital sentencing law for murder or to the complete abolition for drug trafficking and non-fatal firearms act offences.

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