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[Op-Ed] Suicide of Death Row Inmate

Posted November. 23, 2009 09:11,   


Lee Sang-hyeok is an activist who seeks the abolition of the death penalty in Korea. Lee says an inmate on death row goes through four phases of change. Soon after receiving the death sentence, he or she shows a response of extreme rejection of the sentence, refusing to see visitors and blaming society for their situation. In the next phase, they grow pessimistic about the world and act as if giving up on life. This is when death row inmates have the highest chance of attempting suicide. The third phase is when their instinct to live rises again. Some commit crimes in prison because they know they will not be executed during a trial. In the last phase, they display remorse for what they did and struggle for survival.

Dispute over the abolition of the capital punishment has raged since 1989, but the pros and cons remain equally matched. Those backing abolition argue that capital punishment is unconstitutional and “murder in the name of law.” Advocates of the death penalty say those who commit heinous crimes deserve extreme punishment and that pro-abolition supporters consider the rights of criminals more important than those of their victims. In Korea, public opinion is fickle. Support for capital punishment easily rises when a brutal crime such as serial killings occurs.

A serial killer on death row committed suicide yesterday, rekindling the debate over capital punishment. He hung himself with a make-shift rope made from plastic trash bags at dawn, when supervision is lax. Did he himself carry out his sentence? It is ironic that death row inmates are banned from taking their own lives. At any rate, the news that Korea has the highest rate of inmate suicide among member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development brings shame on the country’s correctional authorities.

The Republic of Korea executed some 1,000 people in its first 50 years after the government was established in 1948. The county has not executed a death row inmate since December 20, 1997, and has placed a de facto moratorium on use of the death penalty. The Constitutional Court ruled capital punishment as constitutional in 1996, but an appeals court trying a fisherman accused of killing four tourists has requested another review of the death penalty’s constitutionality in October 2008. Will the Constitutional Court give the death sentence to capital punishment?

Editorial Writer Kwon Sun-taek (maypole@donga.com)