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Constitutional court begins third review of death penalty

Judges at the Constitutional Court's open hearing on Thursday (Yonhap)
Judges at the Constitutional Court's open hearing on Thursday (Yonhap)

The Constitutional Court in South Korea held an open hearing Thursday on whether the death penalty is constitutional or not.

It is the first time in 12 years and the third time in the country’s history that the death penalty has been challenged at the Constitutional Court.

The Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the death penalty system both in 1996 and 2010, with 7-2 and 5-4 decisions, respectively. For The death penalty to be found unconstitutional, at least six out of nine have to vote against the punishment.

The latest case started after a man convicted killing his parents filed a petition challenging the death penalty in 2019, together with the Committee for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea. The man was sentenced to life in prison yet filed the petition as prosecutors initially demanded the death penalty for him.

The petitioner will argue that the death penalty is unconstitutional. A law professor from Chonnam National University will join the petitioner and make argument that there is also no scientific ground that supports the effect of the death penalty as deterrence against crime. The petitioner will also argue that irreversible and irreparable nature of capital punishment, which breaches human rights, particularly the right to life.

The Ministry of Justice, on the other hand, will defend capital punishment. A law professor from Korea University will join the ministry to make an argument citing the death penalty’s retributive impact and deterrence, as well as potential public safety benefit from keeping the punishment. The ministry will also insist that protecting innocent members of the public’s right to life should take higher priority than protecting the right to life of criminals.

A law professor from Seoul National University, appointed by the Constitutional Court, will also participate the case to share research regarding the retributive impact of the death penalty.

Prior to the Constitutional Court’s open hearing on Thursday, Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon said, “Although there is no 100 percent (correct) answer to this issue, the ministry has maintained its stance regarding the death penalty, in considering protection of citizen and human rights against brutal criminals.” Han added that he “believes that the Constitutional Court will make a wise judgement.”

South Korea is currently categorized as an “abolitionist in practice,” but the death penalty is still permissible under the law. Since the last execution on Dec. 30, 1997, the country has not carried out any death penalty, but still issues the sentence. The number of criminals who on death row as of last year was 59.

By Shim Woo-hyun (ws@heraldcorp.com)
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