n African Human Rights Law Journal - Capital sentencing discretion in Southern Africa : a human rights perspective on the doctrine of extenuating circumstances in death penalty cases

Volume 14, Issue 1
  • ISSN : 1609-073X
  • E-ISSN: 1996-2096



In 1935, South Africa reduced the harshness of the common law mandatory death penalty for murder with the passage of the doctrine of extenuating circumstances. A judge was permitted to substitute a lesser sentence if the accused proved the existence of a mitigating factor at the time of the offence. The doctrine, which operated as a rebuttable presumption in favour of death, passed to the criminal law of Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, as well as to the South Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea. The doctrine lacked the analytical rationality of an American or Indian-style discretionary death penalty, which required a judge to articulate an aggravating factor in order to sentence an accused to death, with the burden of proof on the prosecution. The doctrine has now been abolished in South Africa, Namibia, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and Zimbabwe, and modified in Botswana and Lesotho. The decline of the doctrine of extenuating circumstances accords with the international consensus that the death penalty should be restricted only to the most serious crimes and only based on the circumstances of the individual offence and the characteristics of the individual offender.

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