CONSIDER SOME NEWS ITEMS, all from the past several weeks:
+ A worldwide security alert is issued after 23 inmates escape from prison in Sanaa, Yemen; among those at large is Jamal Badawi, mastermind of the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole that killed 17 US sailors. Badawi had been sentenced to death, but on appeal his penalty was reduced to 15 years. Another of the escapees is Fawaz al-Rabe'ie, convicted for his role in the deadly bombing of a French oil tanker in 2002.
+ Joseph Druce, a convicted murderer serving a life term in Massachusetts, is found guilty of murdering fellow inmate John Geoghan, a former priest serving a nine- to 10-year sentence for sexually molesting a child. Judge Francis Fecteau imposes a penalty of life in prison without parole, in effect adding nothing to the life sentence Druce is already serving.
+ Germany releases Mohammed Ali Hammadi, a Hezbollah terrorist serving a life sentence for the brutal murder of US Navy diver Robert Stethem during a hijacking in 1985. Under German law, even murderers imprisoned for life become eligible for parole after 15 years, and Hammadi has been behind bars for more than 18 years. Though German authorities deny it, some observers suspect that Hammadi's release is connected to the freeing of a German hostage held in Iraq a few days later.
A prison break, a murderer who kills again, a paroled killer -- such stories occur with frequency, and no obvious thread links these three. Yet they do have something in common: They demonstrate the fallacy in arguing that capital punishment is never necessary, since killers can be sentenced to life in prison.
Lock up even the worst murderers and throw away the key, the theory goes, and they can never kill anyone again.
But they can and often do.
Like the 23 convicts in Yemen, murderers sometime escape from prison and shed more blood. A few years ago, the US Supreme Court handed down an opinion that began: "In 1974 respondent Robert L. Jones began serving a life sentence after his conviction for murder in the State of Georgia. He escaped from prison some five years later and, after being a fugitive for over two years, committed another murder."
With luck, the terrorists who broke out of that Yemeni prison will be recaptured before, like Jones, they kill again -- but it is not unreasonable to fear the worst.
Like Druce, convicted murderers sometimes kill behind bars. Life without parole offers no protection from jailhouse killers to those inside prison walls, such as guards and other inmates. In 2001 and 2002, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported last year, 129 inmates in state prisons and jails were victims of homicide. A policy of "lock 'em up and throw away the key" may keep a murderer alive only at the cost of sentencing yet another victim to die at his hands.
And then there are all the cases such as Hammadi's, in which convicted murderers are knowingly set free by the state. Germany's 15-years-and-out "life" sentence is reminiscent of the Massachusetts policy under former governor Michael Dukakis, when even defendants sentenced to life without parole could look forward to regular weekend furloughs and eventual release on parole. Other states have been just as casual about turning killers loose. In Louisiana, that state's supreme court noted in 1982, "it was common knowledge that life imprisonment generally means 10 years and six months." According to The New York Times, in his first two years as California's governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger "paroled 103 lifers, 89 of them murderers."
An astonishing number of violent crimes are committed by released prisoners. In a 1995 study, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that in one 17-month period, criminals released on probation or parole inflicted at least 218,000 violent crimes, including 13,200 murders.
Not all ex-cons are murderers, of course. But it stands to reason that people who have already killed once are at least as likely as other criminals to turn to murder again, if they are given the chance. At least 8 percent of prisoners currently on death row had already been convicted of homicide before committing the murder for which they were sentenced to death. There have been 7,250 death sentences since 1976, suggesting that at least 600 additional victims died because their killers were not executed the first time they murdered.
Life without parole is no substitute for the death penalty when it comes to protecting innocent lives. That is not to say that execution is the appropriate punishment every time a defendant is convicted of murder. It is to say that it should be an option for jurors to consider as they weigh the evidence in individual cases. When justice calls for life without parole, the jury is allowed to say so. When justice calls for death, it should be allowed to say so too.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)