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Support of death penalty reveals Taiwan's paradox

Minister of Justice Luo Ying-shay issued an order to carry out death sentences on Tuesday, her first since coming into office in September 2013. Five death-row inmates were executed later that day.

The timing of the execution came into question as online commentators and media pundits suspected the Ministry of Justice's (MOJ) decision was a diversion of public attention from the fervent social discontent symbolized by the currently ongoing anti-nuclear protest. The MOJ had to emphasize yesterday that it had “no political motivation” in carrying out the sentences.

The suspicion of the use of executions as what some described as “a tool to rescue the government” stems from the high public support for the continued existence of the death penalty in Taiwan. Surveys by National Chung Cheng University's Criminal Research Center found that a vast majority of Taiwan's people oppose the abolishment of the death penalty. The latest tally, released in January, shows that 79.7 percent of people interviewed do not want to see the end of capital punishment in Taiwan.

Execution can be suspected as being a government-rescuing diversion only if it shows the government in a positive light by exhibiting the usefulness of the state. Indeed, Taiwan's support of the death penalty is based on the public's trust in the state as a deliverer of justice.

The public's trust in the state, however, originates not from its faith in Taiwan's government or its legal system. U.S. research published in the journal PNAS on Monday estimates that “if all death-sentenced defendants remained under sentence of death indefinitely, at least 4.1 percent would be exonerated.” The Taiwanese public will probably expect an even higher rate of wrongful sentencing by their government.

Yet the death penalty continues to enjoy majority support even during times when there are high-profile examples of wrongful executions, such as the posthumous exoneration of Chiang Kuo-ching (江國慶) executed for the rape and murder of a 5-year-old girl. Some vocal supporters pointed out that the wrongful execution of Chiang does not negate the importance of the death penalty but rather shows the necessity to hunt down those responsible for the murder and the injustice visited upon Chiang.

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