Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Limits of Compassion

In debates about the death penalty, supporters often trot out the worst cases - Hitler, Stalin, McVeigh - and ask folks like me, "yeah, but you wouldn't be against executing one of those guys, right?" The scope of the evil doesn't change my mind, but I concede there is emotion appeal there. Similarly, if you're talking about releasing folks from prison before their sentences are served for compassionate reasons - serious illness, family tragedy, age - folks against such programs would provide some eternal bastards and ask, "yeah, but would you release these guys?" Thanks to the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice, we now have one of "those guys."

Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001 of participating in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103, which exploded over Scotland in 1988, killing all 259 people on board as well as 11 people on the ground. He was the only person ever convicted in the bombing (his codefendant was acquitted) and was sentenced to life in prison. Today, Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill released al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds - that he suffers from prostate cancer and has, according to experts, three months to live.

Scottish law provides for such release, but I've yet to see/hear anywhere exactly how common it is. Federal law has a similar provision (with a corresponding Sentencing Guideline to boot), but it's rarely invoked and I can't imagine it would be invoked in the favor of someone who killed 270 people. Assuming el-Megrahi's guilt,* is his crime so heinous to put any idea of compassion out of play? MacAskill makes a powerful plea otherwise:

Scotland will forever remember the crime that has been perpetrated against our people and those from many other lands. The pain and suffering will remain forever. Some hurt can never heal. Some scars can never fade. Those who have been bereaved cannot be expected to forget, let alone forgive. Their pain runs deep and the wounds remain.

However, Mr Al-Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die.

In Scotland, we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity. It is viewed as a defining characteristic of Scotland and the Scottish people. The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live.

Mr Al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. No compassion was shown by him to them.

But, that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days.

Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion be available. Our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown. Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people. No matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated.
I will say this - I hope MacAskill wears something underneath his kilt, because he's going to need something to carry around the titanic balls he's shown by making this decision. However, in an interview on CNN this evening, he was also maddeningly evasive about whether there was any real precedent for his action. Whether this was a routine extension of a well used procedure or an extraordinary stretching of one is relevant, I think.

Death, as they say in death penalty litigation, is different. If that's the case, then 270 deaths are unique. It may be that an extraordinary act was appropriate. Or it was an extraordinary mistake. Either way, it's MacAskill's for the rest of time.

* Which is not a given. Although he gave up his final appeal, apparently to pave the way for this release, al-Megrahi has always maintained he didn't do it. More interestingly, several families of the victims in the UK agree with him and continue investigating the case. I don't know enough about it to make a decision one way or another.

2 comments:

Spike Nesmith said...

It happens from time to time, mostly with cases that are less high profile. Usually petty criminals, stuff that's not newsworthy, so that probably hinders deeper investigation for precedent. But yeah, I've heard of it happening.

Ronnie Biggs, one of the "great" train robbers, was released on compassionate grounds in England a few weeks back, despite the fact that he leaped over a prison fence and buggered off to live in luxury in Brazil for 30-odd years, and only came gave himself up (voluntarily) to authorities when his ill-gotten gains ran dry and he needed to take advantage of the UK's "socialsed" healthcare to deal with his cancer. (or, maybe he was ALSO on the run from the 'death squads'!)

al-Megrahi was convicted of the crime, but, as you pointed out, there are a *lot* of people - including relatives of some victims - who aren't so sure that he was the right man, and that his only crimes were being connected to some shady people and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There was no evidence presented at trial that he was involved, and certainly none that he handled the explosives or was linked to the bomb any way.

The claim is that he was made a patsy by Libya, handed over in good faith in order to lift UN sanctions, and so that the families could have the all-important "closure". Plus, it doesn't look good for either country's governments to have a case this big and devastating sitting unsolved. al-Megrahi was an easy solution for everyone.

I don't know if he's innocent or guilty. I do think that the evidence (or lack thereof) is compelling enough for further examination. Problem is, nobody wants that. They have their man, thank you very much. That story has a villain, an exciting trial and a happy ending, all wrapped up with a big tartan bow.

There were three other suspects who looked a lot more guilty than al-Megrahi, but they are untouchable; one, whom the Scottish police advocated the arrest of two weeks after the bombing, was a known bomb maker for a Palestinian terrorist organisation who specialised in similar devices. Problem is, he was a CIA informant at the time. One was granted lifelong immunity for his testimony in the Lockerbie trial, and the other, who, at the time of arrest, was in possession of a similar timer used in the bombing was released by German police for "lack of evidence".

My conscience allows for al-Megrahi to be shipped off elsewhere to die more than it does Biggs' release. At least al-Megrahi isn't a drain on the British taxpayers anymore, whereas Biggs - who was most certainly guilty, never showed any remorse for his crime and did what he could to evade justice until he flashed all his stolen cash away in luxury for three decades - continues to receive expensive heath care.

venus said...

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