Governor forwards to Fono bill to repeal death penalty

Aside from practical matters, Togiola cites “looming philosophical” concerns

Gov. Togiola Tulafono has moved to repeal the death penalty in American Samoa and modify the existing portion of the criminal code that relates to deciding whether or not the death penalty should be imposed after a person is found guilty of murder in the first degree.

There have been a handful of measures presented in the Fono over the past 15 years to repeal the death penalty, which currently does not provide a method of execution. But all previous bills failed to muster enough support to pass both the Senate and House.

In the latest move, the proposed law states that the “penalty” for first-degree murder “shall be imprisonment by the corrections division for life and the convicted person is not to be eligible for probation or parole until he has served a minimum of 40 years of his sentence.”

And in accordance with the Revised Constitution of American Samoa, “this bill shall become effective 60 days after the end of the session at which it has passed.”

“While I am cognizant of the need for lawmakers and the courts in the territory to be tough on crime and especially tough on those who devise and plan to deprive innocent people of their lives, there is currently no practical way to humanely impose the death penalty on anyone who is sentenced to death by our local courts,” Togiola wrote in his cover letter to the Fono leadership that included the proposed law.

In other U.S. jurisdictions where the death penalty is carried out, the governor said funding has been secured to purchase equipment necessary to carry out such a sentence and to ensure that persons sentenced to death have been afforded proper protection of their constitutional rights.

Public Defender Ruth Risch-Fuatagavi last week told the Fono Joint Budget hearings that she estimates the defense costs of a death penalty case going through the judicial process including various appealable issues is upwards of $10 million. She said there are many constitutional issues involved in the appeal process due to the way the statute is written.

In his letter to the Fono, the governor said that without means to provide protections and to purchase the necessary equipment, the death penalty in American Samoa has “not become a deterrent to heinous crime or a punishment at all.”

“It has become ‘tough talk’ and merely an empty threat,” he said and pointed out that the law provides that if a person is convicted of first degree murder and the jury finds that the death penalty is not warranted the person convicted shall be punished by life in prison without the possibility of parole or probation until 40 years of the life sentence is served. “I propose that this be the sole penalty for committing murder in the first degree.”

Aside from the practical concerns of imposing the death penalty, the governor said there is always the “looming philosophical concern that perhaps the imperfections in the criminal justice system could lead a person who is actually innocent being sentenced to die.”

“Repealing the death penalty will ultimately and finally obviate such indefensible scenarios,” he said and asked the Fono for support in passing this important legislation.

This proposal from the administration comes almost two months after the Attorney General’s Office withdrew the death penalty in its case against Siaumau Siaumau Jr., accused of shooting and killing a police officer in July 2010.


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