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Death by Zoom

On May 15, 2020, a Singaporean court sentenced a man to death via a Zoom video call. Punithan Genasan, a 37-year old Malaysian, was sentenced to death by hanging for his role in smuggling 28.5 kg of heroin into the country. Genasan appears to be the second man sentenced to death by Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic, following the May 4 sentencing of Olalekan Hameed in Nigeria.

Using Zoom for criminal trials is problematic on both legal and moral grounds. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights requires at a minimum that every criminal defendant be “tried in his presence” and allowed to “defend himself in person.” (ICCPR Art. 14(3)(d).) States must also provide public access to trials.  (ICCPR Art. 14(1)). These provisions apply to every person charged with a criminal offense. But allowing capital trials to proceed by video is even more troubling. As millions of college students can now attest, maintaining focus during zoom presentations is challenging even when internet connections are strong and video images are clear. With video testimony, courts lose the ability to pick up on non-verbal cues that help them make credibility determinations. A court’s ability to empathize with a defendant is also compromised: a 2010 Chicago study showed that judges set higher bail for defendants who appeared by video, compared to those who appeared in person. But perhaps most critically, the physical distance associated with video proceedings enables judges to divorce themselves from the messy business of ordering the death of another human being.

In a 1999 case, the Federal Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit vacated a life sentence that had been handed out by videoconference, observing that sentencing by video creates a “disconnect” between the defendant and the judge. “In the most important affairs of life,” the court said, “people approach each other in person, and television is no substitute for direct personal contact. Video tape is still a picture, not a life.”

The authors believe that governments should never have the power to exterminate human life. But if the death penalty is authorized by law, courts should be required to pass down a death sentence in the presence of the person who is so condemned. The state—represented in human form by the judge—should look a person in the eye before determining that he should “hang until he is dead,” or “be injected with a quantity of drugs sufficient to cause his death.” Anyone who has been in a court when those words are pronounced knows that they are accompanied by a silence so deep and enveloping that one is afraid even to breathe. It is absolutely dreadful.  And that dread should be felt by everyone who takes part in the ritual of state-sponsored killing.  Without it, the act of ordering a judicial killing becomes a banal performance of bureaucratic efficiency.