IF I LIVE TO BE 120, I will never understand people who feel sorry for murderers.
In a Page 1 story last week, The New York Times described the work of the Capital Defender Office, a New York state agency created to keep murder defendants from having to face execution. "Defenders against death penalty construct cases for compassion," the headline read.
The essence of these "cases for compassion" is that because a killer had a hard life or a sad childhood, he shouldn't have to pay the ultimate price for slaying an innocent human being. To generate compassion for Donny Ray Batts, for example, the Capital Defender Office "plunged into the bleakness of his life." It compiled "a story of multiple generations of extreme poverty and emotional deprivation" -- teen-age mother, unstable childhood, aborted education, menial jobs, failed marriage. No doubt about it, Batts had it rough.
But not as rough as his victim.
On December 29, 1995, Batts waved over Maria Garcia -- a 53-year-old real estate agent, a wife and mother of three -- as she was viewing a house for sale in his neighborhood. He invited her into his home to talk about about the property. He tried to rape her, then strangled her with an electrical cord, beat her, robbed her, and slit her throat with a kitchen knife. When he was finished, he disposed of her body in his back yard.
Possibly I am deficient in the milk of human kindness, but I must confess: I have no compassion for Donny Ray Batts. I am sorry that his early years were not happier, but the notion that a grim upbringing somehow mitigates a vicious murder is grotesque and illogical. It is demeaning to the victim, and it slanders the innumerable men and women who grow up in dire straits without turning into homicidal savages.
But the Capital Defender Office had lots of compassion for Batts, plus the diligence to go with it. The legal team spoke to Batts' relatives, checked his medical and employment records, even looked up his elementary school file. "They visited Mr. Batts in jail at least once a week," the Times reported, and "kept knocking on the doors of former neighbors and friends. Talk to us, they would say, We're trying to save his life."
They succeeded. The prosecutor agreed not to seek death. Batts pleaded guilty and went to prison.
It would be one thing if the New York defenders went to such heroic lengths because they believed a suspect to be innocent. Or because they thought the state's evidence was weak. Or even because they felt obliged to provide legal counsel to every defendant, no matter how hateful. But to do it out of compassion? I cannot fathom that.
I am baffled and repelled by anti-death penalty activists who show up outside prisons on the day of an execution to keep a candlelight vigil. Where is the vigil for the murderer's victim? Where is the compassion for the victim's family and friends? One who shows sympathy and understanding to a killer, going so far as to defend him on the grounds that he had a hard youth, turns his back on the only people who deserve sympathy and understanding: those whose lives were shattered by the murderer's deed.
The anguish murder leaves in its wake is excruciating. "There isn't a day that goes by," a weeping Fred Goldman testified on Monday at O.J. Simpson's civil trial, "that I don't think of Ron." His son's murder, he said, means his life will "never, ever be the same. There's a hole missing."
In its story on the Capital Defender Office, The Times quotes 74-year-old John Cassaro, speaking at the trial of his son's accused murderer: "He didn't kill only my son. He killed me. He killed my wife. I am a dead man walking now."
There is little enough we can do to ease the pain of grieving survivors, but hanging murderers can help. Many families can find no peace as long as the slayer of their loved one lives. They are filled with rage and despair; they want the killer dead. By seeking the death penalty for willful murderers, society can offer these families a measure of comfort and assure them that their loss is taken seriously.
The enemies of capital punishment declare that putting murderers to death achieves nothing but vengeance -- mere retribution that dehumanizes society.
They are wrong. For one thing, executing those who murder achieves a lot. It saves lives. It puts proven killers permanently out of commission. It secures justice.
Moreover, there is nothing "mere" about vengeance. The desire for retribution is at the core of every system of criminal law. The desire to hurt those who have hurt others is normal and healthy, a human instinct as natural as recoiling from a snake -- and as self-protective. Revenge is honorable and moral, so long as it is meted out fairly and lawfully, by a court sitting in justice.
What does dehumanize society is showing more concern for the killer than for the killed. The work of the Capital Defender Office, the candlelight vigils during executions, the insistence of death-penalty abolitionists that no crime ever deserves death -- they all spring from this axiom: that murderers have as much right to live as their victims. If there is a more dehumanizing proposition, I can't think of it offhand.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
-- ## --