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Volume 15, Issue 10 ~ March 8 - March 14, 2007

Debating the Death Penalty

I’m of two minds

I walked with other souls in pain,

Within another ring,

And was wondering if the man had done

A great or little thing,

When a voice behind me whispered low,

That fellow’s got to swing.

–Oscar Wilde: The Ballad of Reading Goal [Jail]

The death penalty.

It’s one of the most controversial subjects of the time in Maryland. Should it be repealed, replaced with a sentence of life behind bars without possibility of parole? No easy decision is before our lawmakers as they wrestle with a question that truly is matter of life or death.

In this state, compassion must rule. But to what extent?

It’s certainly not easy to dictate another man’s/woman’s destiny when death is the bottom line. Not easy for the prosecution, which must decide whether to proceed with a death penalty option. Not easy for the judge, who must decide whether to impose death on another human being. Not easy for the jury, who must decide guilt or innocence. And certainly not easy for the appointed executioner.

Far harder for the defendant, who has little choice once the wheels of justice start turning.

Nor is it easy for most of us on the sidelines.

I Would Not Witness

It’s one thing to stand by helplessly and watch a person pass of old age, disease, following an accident or in battle. It’s entirely different to witness a healthy individual who would otherwise have much life left to live walk to a gas chamber, firing squad, electric chair, gallows or whatever knowing that in a short time that healthy life will end.

Twice as a young reporter, this writer covered for newspapers the last days of murderers, writing stories about the impending ends of their lives. Though the Massachusetts man who murdered his wife in cold blood and the escaped felon who did likewise to a Vermont farmer and his wife probably deserved no more days on this earth, it wasn’t easy to witness and write about the finale.

I turned down the opportunity in the case of the wife killer. It was a decision the editor of my newspaper never could understand; after all, it would be one of the biggest front-page stories of the year, and I was young and trying to make a name in this game of journalism. What an opportunity wasted.

But I looked at it another way. I was young and had many more years to live. I didn’t want to live those days waking up from nightmares of watching a healthy man die — after describing in my words how he faced the ultimate. It wasn’t that I disagreed with the process; it was that I wanted no role in it.

On the Other Hand

Legislators across this nation are taking a second look at the death penalty, and more than a few want to do away with it completely. It’s inhumane, and what if the accused is innocent? Once dead, you’re dead.

Yet I vividly recall a conversation with former Gov. Marvin Mandel following a radio show in Annapolis more than 20 years ago. We had discussed conservation issues, but after the show somehow we got on the topic of the death penalty. The former governor mentioned the time he was making a tour of a prison, and he was amidst the prisoners.

It was when the death sentence was under moratorium, and one prisoner reminded him that he already was a murderer, in for life; he could kill the former governor right then and there. What more could society do to him?

How would you like to be a prison guard in facilities where there are more than a few inmates sentenced to life without possibility of parole? A prisoner could kill you because he didn’t like you, or for any reason; what’s he got to lose other than time in solitary? Or how about fellow prisoners who might rouse the ire of those who have nothing to lose?

We’re told by the bleeding hearts it isn’t a deterrent, but methinks that can’t always be the case. Society is based on the premise that good deeds get rewards, bad deeds just the opposite. Death is the ultimate penalty, and surely there are some who would think twice before taking a life when they know it means their very lives are at stake. You can’t convince me otherwise.

Think of all the senseless killing during holdups, carjackings or trivial disputes where the aggressor just decides to shoot the victim. Wouldn’t he be more hesitant to fire that fatal shot if he realized it could mean the difference between a sentence of years in prison — or a cell on death row?

Also to be considered is the possibility of escape of prisoners for life: What would they have to lose if they killed again on the path of freedom?

Also to be considered are the families of the victims. Some find it more than discomforting that killers live out their lives, when their loved one had no choice. Others might not want to take an eye for an eye. Both continue to live under the cloud of a senseless death. Shouldn’t their closure play a significant role in the ultimate decision?

Concerned about a wrongful death penalty carried out? Surely that is of great concern, but possibilities are smaller in modern crime fighting. DNA matching is an increasing reliable technique in solving crimes, and other methods can ultimately lead to positive guilt. Why throw out the most effective deterrent of all when changes in existing law can save it?

Why can’t we further limit the legal qualifications to bring a death penalty case? Somehow we must have a hammer in reserve. We are not a vengeful society, but there are times when practicality must rule — and this is one. Enough said.

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