I Feel Better Now – the Bad Guy’s Dead

By | August 12, 2013 | 0 Comments

The word “peacemaker” has two meanings: (1) Someone who calms hostility. (2) The Colt .45 single-action revolver. If we truly hope to establish peace, we need both.

At 10:52 pm Monday, August 5, smart-phone owners in California were startled to hear an unusual sound. The first statewide Amber Alert was sent out. The name is an acronym for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response. But it was named for Amber Hagerman, a nine-year-old who was kidnapped and murdered in 1996.

This alert was for 16-year-old Hannah Anderson and for her kidnapper, James DiMaggio. DiMaggio murdered her mother and eight-year-old brother before setting the house on fire in the San Diego area. He then kidnapped Hannah, with whom he was reportedly infatuated. After an intensive manhunt, the pair was located in a remote area of Idaho. Hannah was rescued apparently unhurt – at least physically – and the murderer was shot to death by the FBI and police.

On Saturday evening, August 10, I heard that Hannah was safe, and I felt relieved. But I was more relieved − happy, in fact – when I learned that the murderer was dead. Wouldn’t it have been enough if he had been arrested?

No, it wouldn’t have been enough.

My happiness that the murderer was dead was a result not only of his crime spree, but also of a whole series of sad events − a sort of buildup of injustice, an accumulation of injury, a collection of needless pain.

● Fifteen-year-old Mary Vincent was raped, had both forearms chopped off with an ax, and was left for dead in California. Remarkably, she survived. The rapist and attempted murderer was released after only eight years in prison, causing Mary to go into hiding. He moved to Florida, where he stabbed a 31-year-old woman to death. He was sentenced to death, but died in prison four years later, before the sentence was carried out.

● Twelve-year-old Polly Klaas was kidnapped from her California home at knifepoint, raped, and strangled. The murderer had a long record and was wanted for parole violation. This case fueled the push for a three-strikes law. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but remains on death row 20 years later.

A federal district judge ruled that lethal injection, the way we put beloved dogs and cats to sleep, is “terribly painful.” Democratic Governor Jerry Brown and state Attorney General Kamala Harris oppose the death penalty, so they did not appeal the ruling. As a result, all executions ceased in California, though they continue – by the same method – in other states.

No, what’s terribly painful is knowing that your child’s murderer is eating three meals a day, sleeping in a warm bed, watching TV, and enjoying human contact, while your child is in the ground. But the judge is concerned with the theoretical, momentary pain of murderers, not with the actual, lifelong pain of family members and friends.

● Fourteen-year old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her Utah bedroom. Elizabeth was found nine months later. She had been living with two molesters, who were eventually convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

● Seven-year-old Danielle Van Dam was kidnapped from her California bedroom. Later her nude body was found so decomposed that a dentist had to identify it by her teeth, some of which had been knocked loose. The murderer was sentenced to death but remains in prison.

● Four-year-old Samantha Runnion was kidnapped from in front of her California home.  Her nude body was found by a roadside. The murderer had previously been acquitted of molesting two nine-year-old girls, though he admitted touching one of them while “bathing” her. His lawyer got him off by accusing the girls of having been “coached,” and referred to this case as a “win.” We might use a different word. The murderer remains on death row.

● Five-year-old Rilya Wilson disappeared from the Florida foster-children’s program, but nobody noticed for 15 months. Rilya’s body was never found. A caretaker was suspected of her murder, but evidence was insufficient for an arrest. Both the child and her case seem to have been lost.

While writing this article, I searched Google for “kidnapped girl.” I found 879,000 entries, indicating that Google is a powerful search engine − and that we are in deep trouble.
Perhaps all this sad news was on my mind.

Perhaps the deterrent value of being shot to death was glaringly obvious.

Perhaps I knew that the scales of justice are seriously out of balance.

Perhaps the news that the murderer of a mother and her little boy had been shot dead by police helped to balance the scales a bit.

When scales are out of balance, they need to be rebalanced.

Early in the last century, trials were brief and punishment swift. In 1901 President McKinley was shot with a handgun that was advertised in the Sears catalog for $3.27 including postage.
But the assassin was electrocuted 53 days after the crime. The homicide rate in 1901 was only about one-fourth of what it is now. Which factor seems to have a greater effect on homicide: easy access to guns, or prompt punishment of murderers?

The courts blocked all executions from 1968 through 1976, and from 1977 through 1980 there were exactly three in the entire nation.

Homicide reached its 100-year peak of 10.7 in 1980. It is difficult to claim that this was a mere coincidence, and not a result of our misplaced sympathy for murderers.

Executions then increased slowly. By 1992 the homicide rate was 10.0; there were 31 executions and 23,760 homicides, or one execution for every 766 homicides. Even if capital punishment deterred murderers when it was used on one in 67 of them, could it still deter when the odds improve to one in 766, and that after an average of 11 years’ delay?

But by 1995 executions had increased to 56, or one for every 386 homicides, perhaps in part explaining the fall in homicide.

Other factors were at work. We can’t say that the thirteen-year virtual moratorium in executions was the sole cause of the peak in homicide. But we can say that the moratorium clearly did not cause a fall in homicide.

Those who claim that abolishing the death penalty would teach nonviolence ignore the evidence from this thirteen-year, nationwide experiment, which is the best evidence we are likely to see. There is also strong statistical evidence that the death penalty deters homicide.
Abolishing capital punishment may be argued on religious or philosophical grounds, but not because it is a promising idea worth trying. It was tried. It didn’t work.

President Kennedy remarked that those who make peaceful change impossible will make violent change inevitable. Likewise, those who make legal justice unavailable will make extralegal justice unavoidable.

Americans tolerate a certain amount of violence and disorder. We aren’t a regimented people. But our tolerance has limits.

If the courts don’t execute murderers, especially murderers of children, the police will have to shoot them − while resisting arrest, of course. And if the police don’t shoot them, eventually ordinary citizens will.

Eventually people will stop tolerating the intolerable.

When I was eight years old, I walked to school alone through a park. Back then, there was more poverty and racism than there is now. But back then, people were held responsible for their actions, so there was less crime. Kids could grow up without fear. Then molesters lived in fear. Now kids are taught “stranger danger.” Then criminals lived behind bars. Now law-abiding citizens install window bars. That’s progress?

I was more cheerful because I knew that the murderer and kidnapper could never hurt anyone else. Never. But beyond that, I knew that the scales of justice were just a bit more balanced than they had been an hour earlier.

It may be that some of the anxiety and depression so commonly felt by Americans is the result of a continual bombardment of news about brutalized victims, especially children − but a dearth of news about the execution of murderers.

We can’t help but be affected by all this unanswered violence against the innocent and vulnerable, leaving us with a profound sense of helplessness and injustice.

If people think they are helpless in an unjust world, it is no surprise when they feel depressed and anxious. But instead of large doses of “happy” pills, perhaps what they need is to feel a bit less helpless, in a world that is a bit less unjust.

A good place to start is to straighten our bent justice system. This may take some time. Meanwhile, you’ll understand if you see me smiling when I hear that at least one bad guy got what he deserved.

Contact: dstol@prodigy.net. You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.

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