Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 20

May 16-20, 2002

Current Issue

Blues Is … Who Knows What Blues Is

Dock of the Bay
Letters to the Editor
Burton on the Bay
Earth Journal
Not Just for Kids
Spring Home and Garden Services
Eight Days a Week
What's Playing Where
Curtain Call
Music Notes
Sky Watch
Bay Classifieds
Behind Bay Weekly
Advertising Info
Distribution spots
Contact us

Weighing Death

When nine out of 13 people on death row come from one jurisdiction — and a jurisdiction that does not have a particularly high homicide rate — it does raise some questions.
—Gov. Parris Glendening as quoted in The Washington Post, May 12, 2002

Seldom does this writer agree with the guv, but in this, our thoughts are identical. When nine out of 13 people on death row come from one jurisdiction, it certainly does raise a question. And there the agreement terminates.

I wonder if what Governor Glendening is really asking is this: Can it be that the county in question, Baltimore County, situated right next to Baltimore City — where murders take place almost daily — might be doing something right? If you know the answer, it’s not a question.

For the decade or more that this writer’s ramblings have filled this page, I have chosen to refrain from expressing my thoughts on whether or not a brutal killer — perhaps a greedy traitor or a particularly ruthless criminal — deserves to die.

But seeing that same day that The Sun’s headline of its lead story proclaimed “Death penalty issue No. 1” in races this year for the General Assembly, perhaps it’s time to lift my self-imposed moratorium. It’s an odious subject but obviously one that won’t go away.

Religion, personal philosophy, forgiveness, justice (criminal or otherwise), revenge, punishment, mercy, the impact of an eye for an eye as a deterrent, redemption, taking the role of God, closure for victims’ families and loved ones — and yes, the savings to taxpayers over the long haul: These are just some of the issues.

Death is final, so the call isn’t easy. There always will be a remote possibility that a jury was mistaken, but the increasing sophistication of forensic evidence lessens that chance. In most cases culminated by a death sentence, the evidence is solid. That’s why we have a judge and jury.

Means to the End
What is of increasing concern is the manner in which a death sentence is carried out. It’s difficult to describe a society-implemented death as humane, so let’s say the less humane means is certainly inappropriate in a humane society.

Depending on states, there are various means to implement a death sentence: the electric chair, gas chamber, lethal injection, firing squad and the oldest in North America, hanging. Twice in my newspaper career, I covered murders that led to a death sentence — and covered them until the end. It wasn’t easy, though I couldn’t argue with the outcome.

Both were via the electric chair. The cases were a Vermont farm wife murdered by a prisoner on the lam and a wife murdered by her husband via a carefully planned scheme involving slipping by night from Western Massachusetts to Boston to murder her, then returning home in time for police to inform him of her death. The perfect crime that wasn’t.

It isn’t easy to witness the last days of a person doomed to die. Despicable as he is, heinous as the crime, one sees a human being in good health about to die. What’s more, the one witnessing it all is a member of a society that has dictated the impending death. And death by electric chair cannot be claimed humane.

Hanging is a brutal way to go, difficult to justify, and here again, the subject hits close to home to this writer.

Skeleton Out of the Closet
How close? I never knew Dr. Hawley (my father shared that name with him) Harvey Crippen, who, 16 years before I was born, stood his last step on the gallows of England for the murder of his actress-wife. But he was a fourth cousin twice removed, that’s how close.

His was a case recently much publicized, via one of the History Channel’s great murder mysteries not only for its intrigue but because it marked a new and historic twist in criminal investigation. Dr. Crippen, fleeing to Canada with his paramour disguised as a boy, didn’t set foot on Canadian soil; he was arrested still aboard a ship in the harbor.

His arrest marked the first time wireless telegram played a role in a criminal investigation. The ship’s captain, noting the doctor fit the description of a man wanted for murdering his spouse, telegraphed Scotland Yard with his suspicions. Investigators boarded the ship, and Crippen was promptly heading back to England.

That was in 1910, back in the days when justice was swift and lethal. There were no endless reprieves once the sentence was passed following a trial that must have made sensational news for the British press. A story had all the elements of drama: a promiscuous wife, a philandering husband, a young lover (she went scot-free) and detectives of Scotland Yard living up to their reputation. Curiously, newspapers referred to it as the “mild-mannered murder.”

The wife was missing, and neighbors questioned whether she had abandoned the home for another man as claimed by the husband. But for a long time there was no body. Finally, in one of his visits to the cellar of the doctor’s home, a keen-eyed investigator noted the floor had been “tampered” with. A dig turned up a torso.

The doctor had made a foolish and fatal mistake. He used the wrong kind of lime. It preserved rather than eliminated the evidence. Primitive forensic evidence confirmed the torso as that of Cora Crippen, but by then the doctor and his young lady friend had skipped off to Europe, soon headed to Canada to start a new life.

Crippen had first gone to England following the mysterious death of a previous wife, who, incidentally, is buried in a pauper’s grave a few blocks from my brother John’s office at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. That never made much of a story, and the doctor hastened to London to promote his quack remedies.

Let Punishment Follow Crime
But we’ve strayed far from Maryland and death row. The appropriate question of the moment might well be whether the death penalty (administered as humanely as possible) is a deterrent to murder or any other heinous crime. Is it? Can it save lives of potential victims?
We punish children for breaking rules; we fine errant drivers for breaking rules; we jail criminals for breaking rules. We do all that as deterrent, to make it obvious that punishment follows wrongdoing. We do it because it often produces wanted results. Yet many proclaim the potential sentence of death isn’t a deterrent.

I say in many instances it is, especially in these days when the evidence-gathering of contemporary sleuths has become so much more refined and effective. Cousin Hawley probably felt immune to arrest because international criminal investigation and justice was primitive when he planned the murder of his wife. Times have changed.

In the coming election, a candidate for the General Assembly who announces support for the removal of murderers from society will rate consideration by this writer. What greater deterrent to those considering murder can there be than the shadow of one’s ultimate doom looming overhead? Enough said …

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly