AFTER YEARS OF STIFF-ARMING, a legislative committee agrees to hold a hearing on a capital punishment bill. The state Senate tacks on a death penalty rider to its fiscal 1995 budget. The US Supreme Court dismisses Phil Donahue's demand to broadcast the execution of a North Carolina killer. And at week's end, endless reminders that if O.J. Simpson is convicted of that throat-slitting double murder, California could punish him with death.
The death penalty debate is back in full swing.
The public's desire is no mystery. We want fewer debates and more executions. Every poll on the topic finds huge majorities in favor of executing first-degree murderers.
With 20,000 murders a year in the United States, most of us grasp instinctively what happens when the legal system fails to punish murder with a sentence that fits the awfulness and severity of the crime. That willful murderers should be put to death is a moral principle running straight back to Genesis. ("Whoso sheddeth the blood of man," God commands Noah, "by man shall his blood be shed.")
Yet only 244 murderers have been executed since 1968. The last time Massachusetts strapped a killer in the electric chair was 1947. In a triumph of injustice and nondemocracy, a handful of death penalty foes has been able to ensure that most murderers need fear no sanction rougher than some years in prison.
There are many phony arguments against capital punishment, usually offered by death penalty opponents who would remain death penalty opponents even if their objections were met.
They claim to be against capital punishment because, they say, it has no deterrent effect. Or because other Western democracies have abolished it. Or because it is applied -- so they claim -- with a racist double standard. Or because rich killers hire top-notch lawyers and get off. Or because death by electrocution (or hanging, or even injection) is too gruesome. Or because the legal process is too expensive. Or because capital punishment is simply murder committed by the state.
Phony, the lot. Each is either untrue (more white murderers are executed, for example, than black murderers); irrelevant (when did France become our role model?); or illogical (if capital punishment is state murder, a prison sentence must be state kidnapping). In most cases, these arguments are only rationalizations used to justify an opinion that won't change regardless of the facts.
This is easy to test. Ask the death penalty foe of your choice: If Belgium, Spain and Denmark reimposed capital punishment, would you favor it? If it were proven that executing murderers deterred potential killers? If the death penalty were administered with perfect color- and income-blindness? If all legal costs were paid privately? Then would you support it?
The answer is never yes.
The one decent argument against executions -- not valid, but decent -- is the one that changed the mind of Tom Finneran, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. That mind is one of the soundest on Beacon Hill, and worth changing back.
Finneran used to favor the death penalty. What turned him around, he said last week, could be summed up in three words: "Bobby Joe Leaster."
Leaster was convicted of murder in 1971 and sentenced to life in prison (not, please note, to death). An alibi witness supporting him came forward in 1986, and Leaster was released. Anybody who thinks capital punishment is a good idea, said Finneran, "should probably go talk to him for five minutes."
In other words, if the death penalty is revived, an innocent man might be killed.
That is true, and the point has some force. But if the death penalty is not revived, even more innocent people will be killed. The risk to innocent life is greater without capital punishment than with it. The only moral choice, therefore, is to favor its reimposition.
Execute killers and they can never hurt another soul. Let them live and some number of them will kill again.
It is easy to talk about locking murderers up for life. Even if that were possible, some would escape and kill again. Some would kill prison guards. Some would kill other inmates.
But in fact, murderers are never locked up for life. When was the last time a murderer died of old age in a Massachusetts prison? I asked the Department of Correction, and it couldn't find one example. Willie Horton's 1974 sentence for an exceedingly vicious murder was, quote-unquote, "life with no possibility of parole." By 1986 he was free to rape a Maryland woman and torture her fiance.
The median prison sentence served for murder in America is 6.5 years, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reports. Suppose, through superhuman political will, we managed to triple the amount of time we kept killers behind bars. After 19 years, convicted murderers would be getting out, and some would kill again.
Around 2,600 murderers are now on Death Row; roughly one-12th -- more than 200 -- killed their victims after having been found guilty of an earlier homicide. Over and over, the evidence proves: When we let killers live, more people die.
The death penalty is the only just response to murder. With capital punishment, society faces the tiny possibility that an innocent life may be taken. Without capital punishment, society faces the certainty that more innocent lives will be taken. For anyone of sound mind and conscience, the choice should be clear.