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To kill or not is a lively question

March 18, 2007|by Lloyd Waters

When our new country was born we killed the British to preserve our freedoms. As we became a nation, we killed the Indians to acquire their lands, and then we killed each other to preserve our government. To make sure our society remained safe, we have killed those villains who would kill others. When it comes to killing, we seem quite familiar with the subject matter, huh?

In our society today, 38 states, including Maryland, agree that capital punishment is a reasonable penalty, and it is primarily used against those who would kill others. Texas leads those states in executions and has legally killed and laid to rest some 379 convicted murderers since 1976. These dead individuals will kill no more.

Normally, I would presume that all of them were guilty, but then again I thought about the value of the dollar and the cost of a good lawyer. I wondered to myself if these 376 villains all had the best representation that money could buy. Surely they were all guilty anyway, weren't they? Would it even matter if we accidentally put one or more innocent villains to death in the scheme of life?

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During a visit to Texas several years ago, I had the occasion to visit the execution chamber at the Huntsville prison. I remember the old jail warden there telling me how a death-row inmate was transferred to a cell near this chamber several days before the actual execution. During that particular year, the Dallas Cowboys had achieved an amazing comeback victory over the Washington Redskins.

The warden had spent time this same year preparing an inmate for execution. He came to know this inmate briefly as a person, and several days later would be responsible for his execution. Lethal injection was the method authorized in Texas. As the execution day arrived, the inmate was walked to the chamber, placed on a gurney, and prepared to die for his crimes. When the warden asked if he had any last words, the inmate replied, "Hey warden, how 'bout them Cowboys"! I sensed as the warden shared this story, that killing another human being was a tough part of his job.

Governor O'Malley has currently taken the position that capital punishment in the state of Maryland should be abolished. Certainly there are many arguments from a moral and religious posture to support his thinking. Should we really apply that line, "Thou shalt not kill" to every situation? Some opponents of capital punishment also suggest that race, poverty and lack of adequate representation create an unfair application of justice in death-penalty cases.

As a prison warden for 16 years in Maryland, I had the opportunity to review the criminal history of many inmates and discovered very quickly that some inmates were given the death penalty for some horrific murders, while others also convicted of killing innocent victims were given far more lenient sentences.

I remember vividly one young man who received 25 years for killing two Prince George's police officers and was later released by a judge's decision. In regard to a lack of consistency, I also remember reading about a private serving in the army during War World II who was executed for desertion. I thought it a little more than strange that some 21,000 soldiers deserted during that time, and yet only one was executed by the military for desertion. Should consistency also be an issue of concern in regard to the death penalty?

On the other side of the coin, those people who work in our prisons and must maintain control of an increasingly violent prison population are also confronted with a serious and dangerous situation. What can you do with a violent inmate, already serving a life sentence, who decides one day that he is unhappy and decides to kill a correctional officer or other prison staff member simply because he can?

Absent the death penalty, what additional punishment might you bestow on this predator to deter his homicidal behavior? Or even consider the gang member with a shorter sentence adding a notch to his belt by killing a correctional officer. These are potential real-life incidents and behaviors exhibited at times behind the prison walls. The two recent murders of correctional officers are vivid examples of this discussion. What is the answer?

Should we use the example of the Amish families in Pennsylvania who showed us the epitome of their religion by forgiving the murderer who slew five of their innocent kids in a school house, or should we seek the ultimate punishment for the likes of John Couey in Florida who stole little 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford from her home and sexually abused her before burying her alive in a plastic bag in a shallow grave just outside his trailer?

Does our state abolish the death penalty totally and conclude that killing is neither a good practice for the villain or the state, or do we make some exceptions to the rule?

To kill or not to kill is a complex question. Whether or not we can live with the answer is another matter.

Lloyd "Pete" Waters is a Sharpsburg resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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