Proposed Law Would Harm Younger Victims
The governor of Missouri, Matt Blunt, has proposed that his state expand the death penalty to include cases of sexual assault against children where the victim is not killed. However, according to an editorial in the Springfield News-Leader, such a law would not protect children. Instead, it could make it less likely that these offenses would be reported, would put the child in danger of even worse crimes, and would involve the child and the family in years of death penalty litigation. The editorial cites the opinions of a leading child advocate and a prosecutor in urging caution about such a law. In addition to the significant policy considerations, the U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering whether such a law would be constitutional.
To better protect children, Gov. Matt Blunt says we need a new law allowing child rapists to be executed.
In making his pitch, Blunt continually uses the words "protecting our children."
Unfortunately, no matter how well meaning he might be, the governor's proposed broadening of the application of the death penalty may make it more difficult to protect children.
Legislators have been jumping on the bandwagon, saying they will support a Senate bill sponsored by Jack Goodman, R- Mount Vernon, that calls for anyone convicted of forcible rape or forcible sodomy of a child under 12 to be put to death.
That's somewhat predictable. What sane politician in this state wants to be seen as pro-deviant?
Still, if you listen to those who work most closely on child rape cases, you will learn they have concerns about the proposed law.
Creating a death penalty for child sexual offenders, could, in their view:
- Cause a decrease in calls reporting attacks on children, because those making the reports will fear it could lead to death for the suspect;
- Frighten child victims out of coming forward knowing their accounts could lead to an execution, especially when a case involves a family member;
- Tighten rules of evidence in child rape cases, because flexibility and forgiveness have been built into laws regarding testimony from children;
- Create more scrutiny of convictions, with minor errors taking on more gravity and perhaps triggering new trials and appeals;
- Cause much more time to be expended by prosecutors and, often, publicly funded defense attorneys;
- Force children to spend many more years dealing with a case, because capital cases produce many more appeals;
- Heighten the chance that an offender will kill a victim to avoid being identified.
That latter concern came to mind for Barbara Brown, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center, as she dealt with the case involving the 7-year-old allegedly attacked by Jeffrey Dickson.
He's a 36-year-old Springfield man charged with child kidnapping, forcible rape and two counts of forcible sodomy. Prosecutors say he took the 7-year-old from a Springfield home earlier this month to another home in the city where he drugged her, choked and sexually attacked her, leaving her for dead in a house he set ablaze.
Brown, who has worked with child victims for almost a decade, worries a person who is capable of that kind of vicious attack might not hesitate to inflict fatal injuries if the possible penalty is death anyway.
"It takes away the incentive to leave a child alive," she said.
Greene County Prosecutor Darrell Moore cited some of the concerns listed above as he offered his opinions on the proposed law. He added he cannot understand why the move has been made to try to broaden Missouri's use of capital punishment at a time when questions of the constitutionality of a similar law are pending before the U.S. Supreme Court in a Louisiana case.
Should the court rule unfavorably toward expansion of the penalty in that case, work by Missouri's lawmakers will be moot.
If the legislature is doing more than just posturing with its talk of a death penalty for child rapists, lawmakers must first engage in serious, analytical discussion with those most directly affected: child advocates, prosecutors and police.
Viewed in simple terms, the question of being for or against punishment for those who would terrorize, hurt and seek callous pleasure from children is easy.
But this is far from a simple issue.
Those who deal with it judicially know that. Those who deal with it legislatively ought to know it, too.
(Editorial, "Execution of child rapists will not protect our children," Springfield (Missouri) News-Leader, April 28, 2008). See Kennedy v. Louisiana and Recent Legislation.
"A History of Violence" By Elizabeth Benedict
Happy families are all alike. Every happy family touched by murder is shattered in its own distinctive way. For me, the news last summer of the savage killings of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters in Cheshire, hurled me back to the infamous murder that has haunted my own Connecticut family for more than 50 years.
Two months before my parents’ wedding in 1950, my mother’s older brother was shot to death in a botched hold-up in the package store he owned in West Hartford, leaving a wife and two daughters. In 1960, Joseph Taborsky, the man who killed him — and later six more people after his release from jail — became the last man executed in Connecticut — and in all of New England, for the next 45 years.
As a child, my father told me a pared-down version of this story that favored capital punishment. All around me were the legacies of Taborsky’s crimes: my mother’s unbearable sadness and my father’s unending outrage at the injustice of what happened. After being sentenced to death for my uncle’s murder, Taborsky was let out of jail on what my father called a “technicality” and went on a killing spree in central Connecticut in late 1956 and early 1957 that left six people dead and a dozen seriously wounded. For my father, the death penalty was not a tool of vengeance but a matter of practicality, an ironclad guarantee that a murderer would murder no more. He knew that had Taborsky been executed in 1951, many lives would have been spared.
Now in the Petit case, members of the family’s politically engaged church are in a bind because of the prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty for the two men accused of the killings. The pastor and many congregants are actively opposed to capital punishment — Ms. Hawke-Petit is said to have been herself — but many in the church are understandably reluctant to oppose the prosecutor’s goal in deference to the survivor, Dr. William Petit, who has not spoken publicly about the issue since the killings.
A friend of his reports that Dr. Petit favors executing the men if they are found guilty. And, after so much brutality so close to home, some church members are said to be reconsidering their views on the issue.
I am saddened by this news but not surprised. It’s only in the last few years, after studying the details of my uncle’s murder and talking to legal experts, that I can comfortably oppose the death penalty despite my parents’ experience and perspective.
The “technicality” my father spoke of that freed Joseph Taborsky involved the testimony of his brother, who had driven the getaway car, disposed of it and later testified against Joseph in exchange for a life sentence. While in prison, the brother had a psychotic breakdown and was institutionalized. Taborsky’s lawyer spent years trying to convince the courts to disqualify the testimony of a man now deemed insane. In 1955, the State Supreme Court agreed and overturned lower court decisions. Taborsky was set free. He was not paroled, and he was never tried for the robbery that preceded the murder.
A law professor explained to me the nuanced responsibilities of lawyers, prosecutors and judges, and pointed out that my father’s use of “technicality,” suggesting a trivial detail, wasn’t quite right for a case involving disputed testimony in a murder. Nor was my father’s support of the death penalty the only conclusion he could have reached. Killing Taborsky hadn’t been necessary; keeping him in custody had been. The criminal justice system could have saved those six lives without resorting to the electric chair.
This understanding gave me permission to do what I had known all along was the right thing, to oppose the death penalty. As an atheist, I cannot say that we are all God’s children or that my opposition has anything to do with forgiving people who commit heinous crimes. It has only to do with the fundamental inhumanity of state-sponsored killing.
Connecticut did not have to choose to execute Joseph Taborsky in 1951 or 1960. It would have been sufficient to have locked the door and thrown away the key.
Elizabeth Benedict is the author of many books, including the novels “Almost” and “The Practice of Deceit.”
(New York Times, November 11, 2007).
Life Without Parole Would Serve Victims Better
As the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission continued its review of the state's law, the Asbury Park Press called for replacing capital punishment with the sentence of life without parole. This would better serve the families of victims, according to the editorial, because the death penalty causes years of uncertainty with little prospect that the sentence will be carried out. The editorial stated:
Reasons to drop death penalty
State legislators need no further proof about the merits of the death penalty law than to listen to the families of murder victims. Their pain at the thought that their loved one's killer can walk free after a successful appeal or at the end of his sentence should convince any wary lawmaker that life without parole is a far better punishment than a cell on death row.
Those cells have become the permanent home of New Jersey's murderers as they await the outcomes of appeal after appeal to their death penalty sentences. As a result, no inmate — as heinous as his crime may have been — has been executed since the state restored the death penalty in 1982.
The Death Penalty Study Commission conducted a hearing Wednesday on whether to recommend changes to the law to the Legislature. The answer is clearly "yes," with life without parole the best alternative.
That would spare Joanne Barlieb of Atco the fear that her mother's killer in a 1985 convenience store robbery could be free and on the streets in 14 years. "Our family was forced to relive the nightmare three times," Barlieb told the panel of their courtroom appearances.
That penalty would also mean that Robert O. Marshall, 66, of Dover Township, would not be eligible for parole in eight years for his role in the contract murder of his wife in 1984. "Marshall not only has escaped the death penalty, but he will probably see freedom in time to enjoy it," said Richard Pompelio, director of a victims' rights organization.
Marshall was resentenced to life in prison with parole eligibility in 2014 after judges, in one of Marshall's numerous appeals, ruled that his defense was inadequate during the death penalty phase.
One legislator, Sen. Robert Martin, R-Morris, told the commission that the death penalty should be abolished. Fine-tuning it hasn't worked, Martin said. Instead, "it has erected a nightmare for many of the victims' families," he said.
All of these appeals cost money, which was cited by Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, as another reason to drop the law, which he supported in 1982. Now adopting the stance of death penalty opponents, Lesniak also said "there is no foolproof system to prevent the execution of an innocent person."
The evidence against the death penalty law is convincing. It has to go, with life without parole the sentence that serves justice and the families left behind.
(Asbury Park Press, Sept. 15, 2006).
L.A. Times Calls for End to Death Penalty
In an editorial on October 27, the Los Angeles Times called for an end to the death penalty in California. The Times stated that the punishment should end not because of the merits of individual death row inmates, such as Stanley Williams, scheduled for execution on December 13, but because of "who we are" as a civilized society:
Shut down death row
October 27, 2005
STANLEY "TOOKIE" WILLIAMS is a charismatic symbol of what's wrong with the death penalty — and of what's wrong with the debate about the death penalty. His story of sin and redemption powerfully illustrates the unfairness of capital punishment. But to argue that capital punishment is unjust for some defendants is to concede that it may be acceptable for others.
The reason to oppose capital punishment has to do with who we are, not who death row inmates are. The death penalty is inappropriate in all situations because it is unbefitting of a civilized society. Williams' case, though poignant, is irrelevant to this argument.
Part of what makes Williams such an effective symbol in the debate over capital punishment is his compelling story. If there was a hall of shame for criminals, Williams would deserve his own wing. Williams founded the violent and oppressive Crips gang, dealers of crack cocaine and death by gunfire who spread their lethal gospel nationwide. He was convicted of four 1979 gun murders, and who knows what other violence he masterminded as the Crips leader.
By most accounts, however, Williams has become a very different person in his nearly quarter-century in San Quentin. He has written children's books warning against gang life, debunked the thug glamour of prison, helped broker gang treaties and, absurdly, been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by supporters who romanticize his rehabilitation. There is even a TV movie about Williams' jailhouse conversion.
Williams is a good symbol, and good symbols are important to opponents of the death penalty. Yet proponents have their symbols too. And arguing over symbols fails to reach the core of the injustice of capital punishment.
Which is not to say there aren't practical arguments against the death penalty. Putting people to death is more costly than incarcerating them for life, and even then our legal system is not foolproof. Mounting evidence that innocent people were on death row led Illinois to impose a moratorium on executions in 2000, and the pace of executions elsewhere has slowed because of similar concerns. Even U.S. Supreme Court justices are voicing concern about the death penalty's application.
California, which has executed only 11 people since 1976, should give up on capital punishment altogether, like 12 U.S. states and most of what is often referred to as the "civilized world." Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger should cancel Williams' execution, scheduled for Dec. 13, and Williams should spend the rest of his days in jail. So should everyone else on death row — even those who haven't had their lives turned into a TV movie.
(Los Angeles Times, Oct. 27, 2005).