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Murder - or manslaughter, no degrees

North Harbour, New Zealand

Dear Sir,

I read a recent court report of a conviction and sentence for manslaughter with interest. The article concluded with the statement that “In Tonga first degree murder still carries the death penalty” This statment is incorrect and misleading in a number of respects.

Firstly, there is no such thing as “first degree murder” under Tongan law. A person convicted of killing another may be found guilty of either murder - there are no “degrees” - or manslaughter. Secondly, the sentence for murder is either life imprisonment or death by hanging. The verdict is a matter for the jury, and the sentence is for the presiding Judge of the Supreme Court. In other words, the Judge has a discretion as to the sentence for any particular murder; either death or life imprisonment, depending on the circumstances. Any death sentence passed must be confirmed by His Majesty the King.

I am aware that some Tongan churches instruct their members that if they are on a jury, and convict a person of murder, that person will be executed. It follows from what I have said earlier in this letter that that is quite incorrect. Whether because of influence by the churches or for some other reason, Tongan juries often bring in verdicts of manslaughter (killing by an unlawful act such as assault, without the intent to kill) rather than murder (intentional killing of another, or recklessness as to the outcome of a grievous assault) when the facts clearly support a finding of murder.


David Garrett