by Linda M. Perry
Senior Visiting Fellow at National University of Singapore
Campus Observer, 26 Jan 2007

By the time you read this, Iwuchkwu Amara Tochi will be dead. I am writing this on the eve of his execution, scheduled for the break of day on Jan. 26. He is 21 and was only 19 when he was sentenced to die. He is younger than my children and many of my students. I will not sleep tonight.

Tochi was convicted under Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act with transporting 727.02 grams of heroine into Singapore. The judge who convicted Tochi reportedly acknowledged doubt about whether Tochi actually knew he was carrying heroine.

Amnesty International reports that the verdict read, “There was no direct evidence that he knew the capsules contained diamorphine [heroin]. There was nothing to suggest that Smith (who gave Tochi the pills to transport) had told him they contained diamorphine, or that [Tochi] had found that out of [sic] his own.”

That, in the parlance of mature criminal justice systems, is reasonable doubt — doubt that Tochi, a citizen of Nigeria, knowingly violated this law.

Does it matter whether there is reasonable doubt as to Tochi’s guilt or innocence?

Ask James Waller.

Waller, 50, spent nearly 11 years in a Texas prison and another 14 on parole for a rape he did not commit. Reasonable doubt was raised but ignored during his trial in 1982. Last week, he was exonerated by DNA testing, the 12th person since 2001 in Dallas County, Texas, alone to be found innocent after a flawed trial.

DNA testing has revealed that many U.S. states have had too many wrongful convictions, including more than 100 on death row. This has happened in a country with high constitutional barriers to wrongful convictions — the most important of those barriers being the presumption of innocence.

The very real risk of wrongful convictions casts a poignant light on Singapore’s use of the presumption of guilt in death penalty cases. Reasonable doubt is not a factor when the accused is presumed guilty.

Amnesty International reports that Singapore is believed to have the highest per capita execution rate in the world. Most of the more than 420 people executed since 1991 were killed for drug-trafficking convictions, and a significant number were foreign nationals.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur Philip Alston has called for a worldwide abolition of the death penalty for drug-related offenses. He also said the government of Singapore has tried to suppress public debate about its use of the death penalty.

As countries of the world debate when or whether the death penalty is warranted in their societies, many apply the concept of “evolving standards of decency.” These societies debate what crimes are so heinous that anyone who commits them is beyond redemption and should be killed by that society. They consider the age and mental capacity of the offender at the time of the offense. They consider mitigating circumstances that might call for mercy.

To be sure, many of these countries still use the death penalty. As their debates on its use continue, these societies may have a long way to go in their evolution toward decency. But tonight they are looking far, far ahead of Singapore.

Singapore argues that its use of the death penalty is an effective deterrent to drug trafficking. That assumption is surely debatable. But debate on this issue — and on balancing effectiveness with decency — has been lacking.

Iwuchkwu Amara Tochi, 21, is dead. Did the punishment fit his crime? Was it even a crime in the sense of criminal intent? Do the people of Singapore care?

I believe that the leaders of this young country so intent on “nation-building” listen to their people. Perhaps when enough people care enough to finally speak out on how and when people will be killed in their name, then the evolution toward decency can begin.

But tonight, I weep for Tochi, for his mother and his family — and for Singapore.

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Tochi was hanged on Jan. 26 along with Okeke Nelson Malachy, 35, believed to be from South Africa. He had been convicted of abetting the commission of the offense, accused of being the intended recipient of the drugs. Although Malachy’s conviction and sentence was publicized along with Tochi’s, his execution caught me by surprise. Is this another case of taking our medicine sooner?

article19: Thank you to Aaron for bringing this article to my attention