THE RIGHT WAY for Joseph Yandle to spend the rest of his life is behind bars.
Not because he is an evil man; it seems clear that he isn't. In the 23 years since he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole, Yandle has become a model prisoner. He has given up his heroin habit and earned two college degrees. He expresses regret for his crime and offers counsel to fellow inmates. He has even helped raise money for the parents of mentally retarded children. He is no longer the menace to society he once was. If anyone has been rehabilitated, Yandle has.
But the fact that Yandle has cleaned himself up and made something of his life in prison does not cancel the balance due on the debt he owes to society. It does not entitle him to a "second chance." How could it? The crime he committed has not somehow been retroactively lessened. How, then, can it be right to retroactively lessen the punishment that was meted out for that crime?
There has never been any question about Yandle's guilt. On June 20, 1972, he and Edward Fielding held up Mystic Bottled Liquors in Medford, one of a string of armed robberies the pair committed. On that day it was Fielding who aimed the gun at the storekeeper and Yandle who readied the getaway car; in earlier robberies, the roles had been reversed. The thieves made off with $10, but not before killing Joseph Reppucci, a 56-year-old father of two teen-age sons, who was working a second job to make ends meet.
The men were caught and prosecuted. Juries found them guilty of murder in the first degree. Judges sentenced them to life without parole. Appellate courts found no flaw or failure of due process. In short, justice was done: Each of the men who caused the death of Joe Reppucci would lose his freedom for the rest of his life.
Now, as the awful meaning of "for the rest of his life" sinks in, Yandle wants to go free. Last week he appeared before the Governor's Council and pleaded for his sentence to be commuted. "I do not believe I deserve to die in prison," he said.
I'm sure he doesn't. I don't doubt for a moment that the prospect of remaining behind bars forever fills Yandle with despair. For him especially -- a man who has changed his ways and resolved to live decently -- a lifetime in prison would be a profoundly tragic fate.
Life without parole is meant to be a tragic fate. It is meant to fill a convict with despair. How could anything less atone for the crime of first-degree murder? The price the law demanded for the death of Joe Reppucci is precisely the tragic and despair-filled horror of life without freedom. The price for that man's life hasn't changed. Even if Yandle, to his great credit, has.
A vigorous publicity campaign has been mounted in Yandle's behalf. Writers at this newspaper have produced sympathetic articles, columns and editorials. "60 Minutes" has twice aired a segment on the case. Vietnam Veterans of America featured Yandle on the cover of its magazine and urged its members to write letters pressing for his release.
The upshot: Gov. William Weld last month recommended that Yandle be freed. The final say rests with the Governor's Council; it is expected to decide the issue tomorrow.
Amid this wave of PR for Yandle, the memory of the man he helped kill -- and the impact of that killing on Joe Reppucci's family -- has been all but washed from sight. And yet the Reppuccis have never recovered from that shattering day in 1972. Not a week goes by that Licia, Joe's 74-year-old widow, doesn't talk about how she misses him. His sons, Joseph and Robert, forced to grow up without their father, still remember how he used to kneel in prayer beside their beds every night.
No amount of sympathy for the Reppuccis will ever undo the crime that took Joe from them. So why should sympathy for one of the criminals undo the penalty that was lawfully imposed? The Reppuccis' loss of their father and husband is permanent. What a slap in the face it would be if Yandle's loss of freedom were now made temporary.
It is only natural to feel compassion for Yandle. Vietnam messed him up. Drugs warped his judgment. He could have had a plea bargain, but his attorney told him to reject it. He wasn't the triggerman, yet the law deems him guilty of murder. His sentence is more severe than those of other convicts whose crimes are even worse. All true.
Compassion for Yandle? Yes. But forgiveness? That isn't ours to give. And it isn't the role of the Governor's Council to weigh competing claims of sympathy. It is to do justice. And there can be no justice in deciding that life without parole stops meaning life without parole just because a convict goes straight and gets a lot of favorable publicity.
We can admire Yandle for redeeming himself, quitting drugs, and becoming a good person. But he didn't get a life sentence for being an unredeemed junkie lout. He got a life sentence for being an accomplice to murder. Nothing has weakened the reality of that murder. Nothing has weakened the validity of Yandle's conviction. Nothing should weaken the terms of his sentence.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)