Seanad debates

Thursday, 11 December 2003

Adjournment Matters. - Death Row Prisoner.


10:30 am

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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I am glad of the opportunity to raise the case of Mr. Roger Collins who is currently incarcerated in a jail in Georgia in the United States. He has been awaiting execution on death row for the past 26 years. This case was brought to my attention as chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs's sub-committee on human rights. Some months ago the sub-committee heard a presentation from a group opposed to the death penalty, whose chairperson is based in Portlaoise. The group is particularly concerned about the case of Mr. Roger Collins. As a 17 year old, Mr. Collins was involved in an incident which resulted in a young lady being murdered in Georgia. Three persons were involved in the incident, but Mr. Collins was not directly involved in the murder. The other two involved in the incident have been sentenced but did not receive the death penalty. The case has been strongly made that Mr. Collins, who was classified at the time as being mentally retarded, was not adequately represented at the original trial. Apparently his legal representative was paid the sum total of $500 for representing him. The other two defendants, who appeared to have significantly more resources available to them, were apparently better defended and their sentences, while severe, as they should have been, did not result in the death sentence being applied.

The argument being put forward not just by Mr. Collins, but by those who believe we should intervene to save his life, is that he does not claim innocence and he appreciates fully that he was involved in a dreadful crime. The question we must ask is whether 26 years on death row, with an execution sentence still hanging over him, is justice or vengeance. I appeal to the Minister of State, Deputy Ahern, and his colleague at the Department of Foreign Affairs, to make urgent representations to the appropriate authorities asking that clemency be exercised.

It was the unanimous view of the Oireachtas sub-committee on human rights that we should make this case to the governor of Georgia, which we did by way of formal letter. To date, we have not received any substantive response and I ask the Minister of State to use his good offices with what he considers to be the most appropriate and the highest possible authority in the United States to take up this case.

In this House, throughout the country and the European Union the issue of the death penalty is one on which we have a singular view. We oppose the use of the death penalty. Unfortunately, we could take up hundreds of cases currently awaiting conclusion in the United States, but the case of Mr. Roger Collins, who was little more than a minor when the crime was committed and when he was convicted, a person who clearly suffered profound mental difficulties and who had a very troubled life as a young child and who appears not to have got proper legal representation during the crucial trial period, must be examined in an urgent fashion. I appeal to the Minister of State to take up the case and request that clemency be granted.

Photo of Michael AhernMichael Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Cork East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Bradford for raising this matter on the Adjournment. In the first instance I wish to reaffirm the position of the Government regarding the death penalty; we are adamantly opposed to the use of the death penalty in all circumstances in any part of the world. We believe its abolition contributes to the enhancement of human dignity and the progressive development of human rights.

The House will be aware of the efforts we have made, in conjunction with our EU partners and in accordance with the common EU guidelines on the issue of the death penalty, to seek the universal abolition of the death penalty. The EU has pressed for abolition and has also issued démarches on the use of the death penalty in many countries. In the recent past, démarches have been made in the United States, in accordance with EU guidelines, at both federal and state level, on behalf of a number of individuals. The European Union has also raised the issue in its human rights troika meetings with the US.

The EU guidelines adopted in 1998 set out clearly the common EU position on the use of the death penalty. These guidelines now form the basis for Ireland's concerted interventions, along with other EU member states, in death penalty issues. The objectives of the guidelines are to work towards the universal abolition of the death penalty and, in countries which maintain the death penalty, to call for its use to be progressively restricted and for the strict conditions set forth in international human rights instruments on the use of capital punishment to be respected.

The abolition of the death penalty is a political priority for Ireland and our EU partners. Ireland, along with our EU partners, will continue to engage in dialogue with the US authorities to seek abolition of the death penalty and is seeking, in the interim, the introduction of moratoria at state level and the reintroduction of the de facto moratorium at federal level. Internationally, we will continue our efforts, with our EU partners, to seek the universal abolition of the death penalty.

The case of Mr. Roger Collins was raised at the Oireachtas sub-committee on human rights in April and was the subject of a Dáil question as recently as last month. Mr. Collins is currently on death row in the state of Georgia, having been sentenced to death in 1978. He and two others were convicted of the murder and rape of a female acquaintance. Two other men were convicted with Mr. Collins but they are now free – one has been given immunity while the other was sentenced to a term of imprisonment and has been released.

Those seeking clemency for Mr. Collins do so on a number of grounds, including his age at the time the offence was committed, the inadequacy of his legal representation and the length of time that has passed since his sentence. They also believe Mr. Collins could benefit from provisions of Georgia law that provide for a retrial in cases of mental retardation. Officials at the Department of Foreign Affairs have sought clarification of the details of this case to see if it comes within the criteria for intervention set out in the EU guidelines on the death penalty. It would appear there is some doubt about some of the grounds put forward. For example, there are strong grounds to believe Mr. Collins was not a juvenile at the time the offence was committed.

We have also received information from sources opposed to the death penalty that the burden of proof required to obtain a retrial on grounds of mental retardation is so high it is unlikely it could be met in this case. Nevertheless, other grounds set out in the EU criteria appear to be met, notably in relation to the length of time he has spent on death row.

In any event, the Government's view is that no person should be executed since the death penalty, in and of itself, is abhorrent and contrary to human dignity. Accordingly, the Government will convey the concerns of this House to the US authorities through our embassy in Washington.