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Goodbye to the Guillotine
On Sept. 18, 1981 the French national assembly voted to abolish capital punishment
Pierre Joo (pierre_joo)     Print Article 
Published 2006-09-19 14:12 (KST)   
In the first months of 1976 France was shocked by the kidnapping and murder of 8-year-old Philippe Betrand.

The body of young Philippe was eventually found in the apartment of 22-year-old Patrick Henry, who had kidnapped the boy hoping to get a ransom from his parents.

Investigators discovered that Patrick Henry probably strangled little Philippe in the very early hours of his abduction. He then went skiing with his friends, still trying to get the money from Philippe's parents, while their son lay dead. It was indeed a crime which defies humanity with its cruelty and cold heartedness.

The outcome of Patrick Henry's trial seemed obvious to anyone; it had to be guillotine, as France not only hadn't abolished the death penalty at that time, but still used the same machine that beheaded Louis 16th in January 1793.

Scared and shocked by the cruelty and inhumanity of Patrick Henry, a huge majority of French people were convinced that the best catharsis and deterrent against the likes of Patrick Henry was the death of this monster. Robert Badinter, a 44-year-old lawyer and utmost advocate of the abolition of the death penalty, did not agree. For him, Patrick Henry's death would only add inhumanity to inhumanity.

Four years earlier, Robert Badinter had failed to prevent two of his clients from receiving the death sentence. Since then, the abolishment of the death penalty had become Badinter's quest and he agreed to represent Patrick Henry.

Badinter put all his talent, energy and conviction into the battle, to convince the jury that sentencing someone to death amounted to "nothing else than taking a man and cutting him alive in two pieces."

The conclusion of his final plea is still remembered as one of the most poignant and convincing speech against the death penalty. In his book titled l섲bolition (Fayard, 2000), Badinter recounts how he looked at each and every member of the jury in the eye, telling them, "if you vote for his death, time will pass, tumult and cheering will vanish, and you will remain alone with your decision. The death sentence will eventually be abolished...and your children will know that one day you sentenced a man to death. And you will see their look."

In the end, Badinter achieved the inconceivable: the members of the jury became convinced by his plea, some of them were even moved to tears, and they pronounced Patrick Henry's sentence as life imprisonment.

Yet, a majority of French people still favored the death penalty. Badinter might have won a judicial battle, but he had to face public anger, as a lot of French people felt that they had been robbed of their legitimate right for revenge against an enemy of society. The battle against the death penalty was definitely not over.

Francois Mitterrand was the one who proved to have such political courage. In the heat of the 1981 presidential election campaign, fully aware that such a position would go against French public opinion, Mitterrand publicly claimed his opposition to the death penalty. Once elected in 1981, he appointed Robert Badinter as Minister of Justice. Badinter's abolishment law was voted by the French National Assembly on Sept. 18 1981.

It was too late for the last person to be executed in France, Hamida Djandoubi, who died on Sept. 10 1977.

Today, most serious studies tend to prove that the death penalty has no significant positive impact on crime rates, nor does it lower penitentiary costs. Yet 74 countries still haven't abolished it, with 20,000 people currently waiting to be executed.

Among these countries are two prominent democracies, the United States and Japan, where a majority of people claim to be in support of the death penalty. A situation just like France's 25 years ago, until a few men chose to defy the polls becuse they thought that abolishing the death penalty was an issue far more important than their personal careers.

What's wrong with today's politicians? Have they lost some of their predecessors' political courage? Or have their spin-doctors become more powerful?
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Pierre Joo

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