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[Feature] Could Korea finally kill off death penalty?

Majority of Koreans support abolishing executions if life in prison without parole implemented

Last month, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea submitted a constitutional appeal against Article 41 of the Criminal Law, disputing a ruling for a 31-year-old surnamed Yoon who was given a life sentence for parricide last year.

The prosecutors sought the death penalty for Yoon, who has been suffering from mental illness since childhood.

Yoon testified to police that he killed his parents because a voice told him to do so in order to save his soul.

“We believe it is the most apt to counter (brutal crimes) with alternative punishment. From a legal point of view, the death penalty violates right to life. Also, existing research and statistics do not prove the effectiveness of the death sentence in preventing serious crimes,” said Park Soo-jin, a lawyer at Duksu Law Offices, who is working on the case with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea’s committee on abolishing capital punishment.

“The proportion of the public in support of the death penalty has increased because the public feels that offenders of serious crimes do not receive punishment that measure up to the gravity of the case. This is why we are pushing to revoke the death penalty under the condition that an alternative punishment is introduced,” Park added.

Capital punishment is mandated by some 100 articles in 23 laws, such as the National Security Law and Criminal Law, as well as the Cultural Heritage Protection Act and Narcotics Control Act to name a few, according to the Korean Institute of Criminology.

The most recent death sentence was handed to a sergeant surnamed Lim, 25, who killed five soldiers and wounded seven others in a shooting rampage in a border unit of the Army’s 22nd Division in Goseong, Gangwon Province, in 2014.

The number of prisoners on death row stands at 61, including the country’s most prolific serial killer, confessed cannibal Yoo Young-chul.

Prior to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea’s case, there have been two constitutional complaints -- in 1996 and 2010 -- on which the Constitutional Court ruled the system constitutional. In the 1996 case, the court ruled 7-2 in finding the death penalty constitutional, while the 2010 case saw judges rule 5-4 in favor of the death penalty.

Six of the nine Constitutional Court judges would have to vote against the death penalty for it to be abolished.

Mixed public opinion

A series of lighter-than-expected sentences for those convicted of cruel murders and child rapes have sparked outrage among the public, pressuring the justice system to mete out tougher punishments for serious crimes.

Sending shock and fury across the country in 2008, Cho Doo-soon, then 57, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for the rape of an 8-year-old girl in the restroom of a church in Gyeonggi Province.

Cho kidnapped, beat and raped the victim, damaging 80 percent of her reproductive system. She has to live with artificial genital organs for the rest of her life.

Citing “mental and physical weakness under the influence of alcohol,” the Seoul court reduced Cho’s jail time from the maximum possible 15 years. Cho, who denied any memory of the incident, is due to be released in December 2020.

“I don’t think it is timely to abolish the death sentence. In the bigger picture, I am in support of life sentence without parole as an alternative to the death penalty. But stricter law enforcement for violation of the law has to precede it,” said Francisco Jeon, 36, a worker in the financial services industry.

“There are too many cases of reduced sentences and leniency for severe crimes on grounds of mental and physical weakness, which some perpetrators take advantage of. This does not serve justice to the offender and everyone involved,” he added.

Echoing Jeon, graduate student Nam Kyu said, “I believe capital punishment functions as a social safety net. Without it, bloody crimes would increase even more. Also I find it difficult to understand the rationale and reasoning behind reduced sentences for brutal offenders due to mental illness.”

Though experts argue there is a lack of evidence that the death penalty is an effective preventive measure and social safety net, the public, for now, believes otherwise.

Jeon and Kim are among the 79.7 percent of citizens who back capital punishment, up 13.7 percentage points from 2003, in a survey by the rights agency.

In the same National Human Rights Commission of Korea survey late October that asked 1,000 adults about their opinions on death sentence, 23.5 percent said rescinding capital punishment would lead to an increase in brutal crimes; 23.3 percent said it had a preventive effect; 22.7 percent said it was a punishment for the pain caused to the victim and families; and 15.6 percent said there was a lack of suitable alternative punishments.

Given the option of an alternative punishment, however, those agreeing with the repeal of the death penalty soared to roughly 70 percent, the survey showed.

“Public opinion is a reflection of the society, and the country’s legal consciousness has improved in recent years. The highlight of the survey is that the majority of the public does not want offenders to be killed if there is an alternative punishment,” said professor Kim Do-woo of Kyungnam University’s Department of Police Science, who led the survey.

Kim attributed the increased frequency of serious crimes reported in the media as having an impact on public opinion in support of the death penalty. 

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea’s committee on abolishing capital punishment holds a press conference on the constitutional complaint it filed against capital punishment in front of the Constitutional Court in northern Seoul on Feb. 12. (Yonhap)
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea’s committee on abolishing capital punishment holds a press conference on the constitutional complaint it filed against capital punishment in front of the Constitutional Court in northern Seoul on Feb. 12. (Yonhap)

Movements at the National Assembly

“The difference between a life sentence without parole and capital punishment is whether the convict leaves the prison dead or killed,” said National Assembly Secretary-General Yoo Ihn-tae.

Yoo, whose death sentence in 1974 for involvement with the Federation of Democratic Young Students was commuted to a life sentence, worked on repealing capital punishment and implementing life in prison without parole in the 17th and 19th National Assembly.

“There are legal restraints to sentencing the death penalty in Korea due to the agreement with the EU for judicial cooperation in criminal matters. It is the global trend to discontinue the death penalty. And there’s also the possibility of misjudgment,” Yoo said.

As of 2017, 106 countries have abolished the capital sentence, a sharp rise compared to 70 countries in 1997, according to Amnesty International.

“Besides public opinion, there is power struggle within the National Assembly’s Legislation and Judiciary Committee where a significant number of lawmakers are former prosecutors. So revisions containing discontinuation of the death sentence have not been reviewed by the committee,” said an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to involvement in the matter.

Convict’s daughter pleads for death penalty

The eldest daughter of a murder victim brutally stabbed to death by her ex-husband surnamed Kim, 49, at an apartment complex parking lot in western Seoul last October urged authorities to sentence the murderer -- her father -- to death, fearing revenge and recidivism.

“We sought the death sentence (for the murderer), but the prosecution gave a life sentence. We are terrified. Our family is deeply worried that he may seek revenge after he gets out,” the eldest daughter said after the first trial in late January.

Kim claimed a voice had told him to kill his ex-wife.

The Seoul Southern District Prosecutors’ Office sentenced Kim to 30 years in prison and ordered him to wear an electronic tracking device for 20 years.

Claiming the punishment was too lenient, the victim’s family took to the online community and Cheong Wa Dae’s online petition board.

On multiple posts, the family revealed the criminal’s personal information, photos and a detailed description of vicious attacks committed on the three siblings and deceased victim.

“Based on what he has done to us I don’t believe his sentence should be reduced because of mental and physical weakness. He is a meticulous and scary person. He publicly said he could get out (of prison) in six months after killing mom. We plead for a strict punishment,” the post said.

By Kim Bo-gyung (