A Month of Killing, More on the Way?

Today, if I stare off into the middle distance and let it happen, images of homicide victims queue up, most of them cops I knew, and children. It's been a bad month for both.

"Bam, bam, bam," begins New York Times reporter Timothy Egan's April 8 must-read blog, "The Guns of Spring." Each interjection represents a dead cop: the three Pittsburgh officers recently lured to a residence and gunned down by a man with an AK-47 and several handguns. The second of Egan's paragraph starts with four bams (the Oakland cops slain on March 21), the third with five bams (for each child murdered by their own father here in Washington State), the fourth with 13 bams (the Binghampton, N.Y., immigrants and their teachers).

Fifty-seven people gunned down in mass murders in less than a month.

I'll always have a visceral reaction to the killing of a police officer, especially in ambush; how many times during my career did I stop a car or knock on a door not knowing whether there was a bullet waiting for me? Too many of my own colleagues met precisely that fate. And I have a special, dreaded place in my memory for all the dead kids I saw in my former line of work, many of those young lives taken by a parent.

All this carnage over the past month raises once again the question of what to do with cold-blooded killers. In the logic of 36 states, the answer: kill them.

I have no trouble understanding the urge to kill a killer. He has it coming, doesn't he? Take a man, for example, who kidnaps, rapes, tortures, and kills a child -- how can we possibly justify punishment other than the death? His execution provides closure to loved ones, it sends a message to other would-be killers, right? The rationale for capital punishment is essentially reducible to these two reasons. An eye for an eye, and death as deterrent.

But pressure to end the death penalty is mounting, and reasons for it are compelling.

More and more loved ones of homicide victims are speaking out against executions. As Azim Khamisa told a reporter following the shooting death of his son, Tariq, "I know the pain of losing a child. It's like having a nuclear bomb detonate inside your body, breaking you into small pieces that can never be found. This violence scars the soul forever." But he also had this to say: "...forgiveness is a surer way to peace than an eye for an eye. The more we role-model the death penalty, the more violence and revenge there will be." A similar argument was made by Matthew Shepard's parents in Wyoming, Matthew's father adding that he wanted the men who tortured and killed their son to think each and every day, for the rest of their lives, about what they had done.

This philosophical/spiritual argument is at the heart of many abolitionists's opposition to the death penalty. But there are numerous other reasons why the movement to end executions is scoring successes and building momentum.

Obviously, if the state kills a killer that killer will kill no more, but will his or her death dissuade others? No. Murder rates in the 13 states that have rejected the death penalty (soon to be 14, thanks to Governor Richardson and the New Mexico state legislature) are consistently lower than in states that continue to embrace capital punishment. While it's hardly a representative sample, it's worth noting that three of the four states where last month's mass homicides took place are death penalty states.

Other reasons for opposition to the death penalty? It's extravagantly expensive. The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice estimates annual costs of the death penalty system at $137 million in that state alone ($232.7 million if recommended reforms intended to assure fairness are enacted) vs. $11.5 million for a system whose maximum penalty is lifetime incarceration. By any measure, it costs far more to maintain the death penalty than to replace it with a sentence of true life imprisonment.

I shared a panel with Sam Millsap in San Jose last year. Sam's an eloquent former Texas district attorney who tours the country advocating for the abolition of the death penalty. Unlike Azim Khamisa, this former prosecutor doesn't oppose executions on moral grounds. His opposition is rooted in his conclusion that all human systems are vulnerable to mistakes. He made one such mistake himself, sixteen years ago. It led to the execution of Ruben Cantu, a man later proven to be innocent.

Capital case prosecutions based on a sole witness; jail house snitches; willful or unintentional mistakes by police investigators; compromise or destruction of key physical evidence; disregard of exculpatory evidence by prosecutors; shoddy and/or underfunded defense work; race and class discrimination (not a single rich person sits on death row) -- any of these can affect the quality of a death penalty case. And lead to the execution of the wrong person.

How in God's name can we continue to put people to death, knowing as we do that innocent people are on death row? Or have already been gassed, injected or fried to death?

Lest there be any doubt, I am an abolitionist, a member of Death Penalty Focus which, along with many other fine organizations is working to end executions. The death penalty is -- as most other civilized countries in the world have been trying to tell us for years -- barbaric.

And cowardly. Shooting an armed, hostage-holding assailant can be a life-saving act of heroism, as those extraordinary Navy seals proved off the coast of Somalia. But there's something fundamentally wrong with taking the life of someone in the state's custody.

Or in killing people to demonstrate that killing is wrong.