Public Opinion on the Mandatory Death Penalty in Trinidad

Type Report
Title Public Opinion on the Mandatory Death Penalty in Trinidad
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2011
Publisher Foreign & Commonwealth Offi ce
This publication reports the fi ndings from a public opinion survey, designed by the
authors, of the views of a representative sample of 1,000 residents of Trinidad on the
very topical subject of the death penalty, and in particular the support for and use of the
mandatory death penalty for murder. The data was collected in Trinidad by face-to-face
interviews between 16th November and 16th December 2010 by the experienced company,
Market Facts and Opinions of Trinidad, and analysed by the authors. The research was
funded by grants made to The Death Penalty Project which commissioned the project in
association with the University of the West Indies Rights Advocacy Project of the Faculty
of Law (URAP).
In order to gain a better impression of support for the death penalty, interviewees were
shown three scenarios describing a murder: one involving a robbery, another involving
a domestic murder by a woman, and a third involving a ‘drugs-related’ murder. Each
of these types of case had two examples, one in which it was possible to perceive a
mitigating element and one without the mitigating factor. These six cases were randomly
assigned to interviewees so that 500 decisions were made on each case. Interviewees
were asked to say what penalty they thought the offender deserved. Thus, 1,000 people
made between them 3,000 decisions.
The results revealed that 89 per cent of Trinidadians are in favour of the death penalty.
Thus only 11 per cent favoured its immediate abolition. However, only a quarter (26%) of
the 1,000 respondents favoured the current law under which the death penalty is mandatory
for all murders whatever the circumstances. When asked to say whether the death penalty
was appropriate in the specifi c scenarios put to them, just under half (49%) of the 3,000
decisions resulted in the imposition of the death penalty. The proportion of the 1,000
persons interviewed who thought that the death penalty was the appropriate punishment
for all three types of crime on which they made a decision was only 1 in 5 or 20 per cent. In
none of the cases in which there were mitigating circumstances, including those involving
a violent robbery-murder with a fi rearm and a drug-gang-related execution, did a majority
of those reaching a decision choose death. They preferred to take into account mitigating
factors, such as age and previous good character. This suggests that Trinidadians would
SIM-13304 Text.indd 9 IM-13304 Text.indd 9 23/05/2011 11:18 3/05/2011 11:18be unlikely to support a change in the law which limited the mandatory death penalty
even to such a limited category of murder as those committed during a violent felony.
The main reason given for regarding the death penalty as the appropriate punishment
for murder in the scenarios put to them was the need for retribution: that the offender
deserved to be put to death. In a minority of cases (1 in 7), the reason given was the need
to incapacitate the offender from committing further murders. But in only 1.3% of the
cases did the respondents cite deterrence of others as one of the reasons for preferring the
death sentence.
The high level of general support for the death penalty was contingent on it being enforced
with no possibility that an innocent person could be executed. When asked whether they
would still favour or oppose the death penalty if evidence became available to prove that
innocent people have in fact sometimes been executed, the percentage of persons who
would then support the death penalty would dwindle from 89 per cent to 35 per cent.
Thus, it is reasonable to assume that legal reforms that would weaken the protection of the
innocent would be likely to lessen the support for the death penalty by a large percentage.
Overall, a large majority of those interviewed (63%) favoured a discretionary death
penalty, i.e. one imposed by a judge after considering the individual circumstances of
the offence and the offender. Those favouring a discretionary system did so largely either
because they recognised that not all who commit murder ‘deserve to die’ or they wanted
to reserve it for the most ‘gruesome murders’. This suggests that they would be unlikely
to favour a mandatory system even for a smaller class of murders defi ned rigidly by
statute, such as those involved in the commission of a violent felony.
Interviewees were asked whether they thought that juries would be more likely to convict
for murder rather than manslaughter, if the mandatory death penalty were abolished.
Almost the same proportion of those who favoured the mandatory death penalty (74%)
said yes, as did those favouring the discretionary death penalty (76%). Altogether nearly
three-quarters (73%) of the 1,000 Trinidadians interviewed, including those opposed to
the death penalty, thought that abolition of the mandatory death penalty would bring
about more convictions for murder.
The question of the level of support for the mandatory death penalty was also investigated
by giving respondents two examples (each assessed by half the sample) of situations
SIM-13304 Text.indd 10 IM-13304 Text.indd 10 23/05/2011 11:18 3/05/2011 11:18where a person had been convicted of murder during a ‘joint enterprise’ even though he
had not been the person actually causing the death. In both instances less than half the
respondents thought that a conviction for murder was the most appropriate penalty.
Respondents were also asked what alternative to the death penalty they would in general
favour if capital punishment were to be abolished, and also what alternative penalty they
would impose in the scenario cases they judged where they had not imposed the death
penalty. The fi ndings indicate that there would not be majority support for the replacement
of the mandatory death penalty with a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without
the possibility of parole, although that should be an available punishment at the judges’
When asked what they thought might be the most effective policy for controlling ‘violent
crime leading to death’ in Trinidad and Tobago, only 36 per cent of those who favoured
the mandatory death penalty gave as their answer ‘a greater number of executions’,
while among those who favoured a discretionary death penalty, only 18% thought more
executions would be the most effective policy. Altogether, only 21 per cent of the 1,000
persons interviewed put ‘a greater number of executions’ as fi rst priority, while 43 per
cent of the sample gave fi rst place to ‘better moral education of young people’, followed
by ‘more effective policing’ – 22 per cent.
Even more surprising, 36 per cent of those who supported the mandatory death penalty
and 54 per cent of those in favour of a discretionary system rated ‘greater number of
executions of murderers’ as the least likely policy to reduce violent crimes leading to
Thus, the fi ndings from this public opinion survey, when taken in conjunction with the
two previous studies on the use of the mandatory death penalty for murder in Trinidad
and Tobago, strongly support the abolition of the mandatory penalty and its replacement
for the time-being until full abolition may be achieved, by a fairer and more parsimonious
discretionary system.

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