One of these days, when CNN’s designated miracle-worker Piers Morgan (because making Larry King look brilliant is a miracle) is extolling the superiority of the land of his birth over the stupid, violent, individual rights-obsessed U.S., someone should ask him about Jordan Sheard. Sheard, a sadistic 20-year old bully, set his sights on a young gay man, Steven Simpson, whose offenses included, in addition to his sexual orientation, a speech impediment, epilepsy and having Asperger’s Syndrome. Sheard forced Simpson to strip down to his underwear and wrote gay slurs over his body, covered him with tanning oil, and set him on fire.
At his birthday party.
Sheard ran away, leaving his victim burning and screaming. Simpson, burned over 50 percent of his body, later died. Sheard’s defense was that it was all just a prank gone wrong, and he was allowed to plead guilty to manslaughter. The sentence? 3½ years…but the way the British penal system works, Sheard will probably be released after serving half that.
This is a particularly awful example of British justice, but it is not an anomaly. All over Western Europe, human life is routinely devalued by progressively lower and lower sentences for killers adn all criminals. Why is this? As I have written here before, I believe it is because the range of sentences in those nations is not anchored to an absolute punishment for the worst offenses against human kind. . Without a death penalty as a reference point, however it is set, punishments for lesser offenses—even vicious lesser offenses— begin sliding down the slippery slope, until the punishment for shocking, cruel and horrific crimes like Sheard’s amount to a slap on the wrist. What occurs along with this phenomenon is a gradual devaluing of life in that culture, since the sentence for murder is, in essence, the price society exacts for a life taken by another. If the price is too cheap, life is too cheap, and society and the culture gets the message.
Maryland looks like it will abolish its death penalty, becoming the 18th state to do so, and naturally most of the news media is cheering it on. The Washington Post editors wrote a virtual template of an “end capital punishment now!” editorial last week, and it amassed all the arguments we have heard for a century:
“With popular opinion generally in favor of retaining capital punishment, it took guts for Mr. O’Malley and lawmakers to press for repeal. They will have to summon even more spine to fight for its repeal at referendum if the question gets on the ballot next year. Until then, it is worth revisiting and reminding voters of the powerful arguments for repeal — the lack of deterrence; the racial imbalance in the administration of capital punishment; the steady drip of defendants wrongly convicted in capital cases; the impossibility of undoing the execution of a person who has been mistakenly condemned. Since 1978, when capital punishment was reinstated in Maryland, just five people have been executed in the state — none since 2005 — but untold millions of dollars have been spent in litigating the cases of more than 50 others sentenced to death. As Mr. O’Malley has recognized, that is a damning portrait of ineffective and wasteful public policy.”
None of this litany argues for the elimination of the death penalty in appropriate cases; it is a mish-mash of various assumptions, rationalizations, and fallacies. No, the death penalty probably doesn’t deter killers very often. There’s not a lot of evidence that any punishment deters crime much, because 1) most criminals are dumb as bricks, and 2) they don’t plan on being caught. On the other hand, as my father was fond of saying, the death penalty sure as hell deters the killer sentenced and executed from killing anyone else. Ted Bundy, you may recall, was adept at escaping from prisons. Other murderers have continued to kill people in jail. Deterrence isn’t the best argument for capital punishment, but the deterrence of further killing by some of our worst criminals is a nice little side benefit I wouldn’t underestimate. The racial imbalance in the administration of capital punishment, if it means that blacks tend to be sentenced more harshly than whites, demands that we start sentencing whites as harshly, not that we should stop executing murderers who deserve to be executed. If it means that blacks are being punished more harshly than their crimes warrant, then fix that aspect of the system. If you eliminate capital punishment, the same argument will remain for whatever serious punishment remains. Black killers who are justly executed have not been mistreated because some white killers unjustly avoid their punishment.
The Post editors, like most opponents of capital punishment, rig the debate by insisting that the system must be perfect,that it is fatally flawed and should be scrapped because mistakes are sometimes made. No system is perfect, and they know it. We need a system of clemency and appeals, but sometimes a mad dog killer is released who wreaks havoc on society. Should we eliminate clemency? We need a system of choosing leaders, and sometimes it gives us fools, crooks and incompetents who get citizens killed and throw the nation off its tracks. Should we junk democracy? The drip-drip-drip has been coming from innocent men sentenced to life or long sentences because of prosecutorial misconduct—why isn’t the Post advocating eliminating life without parole…life…25 years to life? This is how a culture gets to the point where ending the life of an innocent, vulnerable, gay man in pain and terror is punished with a likely 18 mouths in prison. “What if somehow we’re wrong?“
I have no problem with reserving the death penalty exclusively for cases where “beyond a reasonable doubt” has become “absolutely no doubt whatsoever,” and the crime or crimes involved are momentous, cruel, and beyond redemption. The D.C. snipers. Bundy. The BTK killer. The Cheshire home invaders, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky. Timothy McVeigh. We can scale the severity of punishment from their horrible crimes down, knowing that our reverence for life will not be subject to progressive deflation….as it has in England.
Facts: The Sun
Source: Washington Post
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