September 27, 1990

Executing Murderers

I believe that people would be alive today if there were a death penalty.

Nancy Reagan

If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck; it must be a duck. Right?

Wrong! That is what every duck thinks when he flies down to a pond full of decoys and into a volley of bird shot. Had that duck not believed that old adage, he might be alive today.

I am a specialist at looking at a chain of evidence and reasoning my way to a conclusion and I'm damn good at it. Yet, if I got $1000 for every time that my conclusions were wrong, I'd be a rich man today. What do you figure the batting average is of the average Joe or Jane?

Someone calls the police because they heard a lot of noise. The cops arrive to find a man holding a bloody baseball bat. His wife lies on the bed, horribly beaten and dead. The man says that he found his wife dead and that he was in such shock that he just picked up the bat. The police establish that he had bought the bat a week before. To top it off, they had a lousy marriage. They were always fighting, and she reportedly had an affair with everyone on the block. He was reputed to have a hair-trigger temper. On the previous night, they had yelled so loudly at each other that their neighbors complained to the police.

If you or I were on that jury, we would have no problem reaching a guilty verdict. There is NO REASONABLE DOUBT that he is guilty.

But there is always doubt and the man may really not be guilty. It isn't reasonable, but it is doubt! Maybe she was killed by a friend of the family or an intruder. Very possible, even though it's not at all probable. The only way to establish that as the scenario, is to find the actual killer. That might be hard to do if the killer doesn't want to be found.

I'm no bleeding heart! Killing a murderer doesn't bother me at all. I am particularly in favor of doing in people who kill for business or pleasure. They, in my mind, have forfeited their right to life.

Executing someone who isn't a murderer bothers me plenty!

There have been a number of cases where some look-alike was sent to prison, only to be released years later when the real culprit was found. Setting him free could never have happened if the man had been executed.

The Sacco and Vanzetti case is often held up as an example of what capital punishment might do. Sacco and Vanzetti, both Italian immigrants, were revolutionaries at a time when revolutionaries were very unpopular. They were convicted of murder in the course of a bank robbery and were executed in 1927. Many believe that they were framed because of their politics and that a retrial would have found them innocent. Many years later they were pardoned by Governor Dukakis --too late to do them any good.

In the Bruno Hauptman case, a weird German carpenter was found guilty of kidnapping and murdering Charles and Anne Lindberg's baby. This case is thought by some to have been a miscarriage of justice. Hauptman was electrocuted in 1936 for the kidnap-murder. Hauptman maintained his innocence to the end even though the evidence against him was overwhelming. He claimed that some man who had boarded with him did it, hid the ransom money in Hauptman's home and then went back to Germany. The trial was stranger than the crime, and the hype surrounding it made it seem more like a circus than a trial. His story was unbelievable --but could it have been true? We will probably never know.

I am not categorically opposed to capital punishment. I do believe very strongly that a sentence of "life without possibility of parole" is a better sentence when there is even a shadow of a shadow of a doubt. It also has the advantage of not turning a killer loose on society --an excellent policy for the criminal justice system to follow.

You can compensate a person, to some degree, for false imprisonment, but you can't return a person's life once it has been taken away.

It is also worth remembering that you or I might be caught in some weird chain of events that might end our lives before our time.

Very highly improbable --but always possible! Think about that, you Lotto players.

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