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What will keep killers from doing it again?

January 20, 2008|By BOB MAGINNIS

It has been more than 20 years since it happened, but I doubt I'll ever forget it.

I had hauled my family's weekly load of trash to the Washington County transfer station at Greensburg. My oldest son, then about 5, was along to help, though his "help" consisted mostly of looking into the bins to see what treasures other people had tossed out.

I walked over to the recycling bin, dumped my cans, then turned around in time to see an old guy in his 70s lift my son up and place him on the tailgate of my truck.

Normally a reasonable person, I had to restrain myself from tossing this person - who had touched my child - into the dumpster. The flash of anger was more instinct than anything else. In that instant I understood why it's a bad idea to get between a mama bear and her cub.

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Now imagine how I would have felt had the old coot actually harmed my boy. I can imagine that, but not what Paul Highbarger of Halfway must be going through.

Highbarger's stepson, Smithsburg Police Ofc. Christopher Shane Nicholson, was shot and killed while on duty Dec. 19. Highbarger said he was unhappy that the Christmas Eve service for his stepson was attended by Gov. Martin O'Malley, who supports the repeal of the death penalty.

Highbarger is urging local state lawmakers to oppose the repeal and impose the death penalty as soon as possible.

Repeal is unlikely, in my view, because too many elected officials fear that a vote to repeal would be used by opponents as evidence that they are "soft on crime."

Repeal might also send an unwanted message to those inmates already serving life without parole - that's it's open season on correctional officers.

And yet the idea of repeal has gained support because some death-row inmates have been freed after DNA evidence showed they couldn't have committed the crimes they were convicted of. Studies also show that factors aside from guilt and innocence, such as the race of the victim, affect how often a death-penalty verdict is reached. Research also shows that those who commit murder - the ultimate crime of passion - don't consider the possible penalties, in most cases.

Other impediments to speedy imposition: Decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court that have provided additional grounds for death-row inmates to use on appeal.

In 1995, The Washington Post Magazine carried a long excerpt from David Von Drehle's book, "Among the Lowest of the Dead."

In it, Von Drehle examined the Supreme Court's attempts to tidy up the states' death penalty laws in the 1972 case of Furman v. Georgia.

The decision in effect sent the matter back to the states, where prosecutors had to decide whether the crime in question had (for example) been "especially, heinous, atrocious or cruel."

In 1992, Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, wrote "Millions Misspent: What Politicians Don't Say About The High Costs Of The Death Penalty."

In it, Dieter argues that it's actually less expensive to incarcerate someone for 20, 30 or 40 years than to pursue all the appeals needed to get to an execution. O'Malley shares this view, contending the money spent on expensive death penalty cases should be used instead to hire additional police officers.

Apparently, the cost argument is valid. In Kansas, Dieter found that that in Kansas, in a capital case the bill for the initial trial alone, with all its motions and the cost of expert witnesses, usually was at least $100,000 more than a case in which the death penalty had been ruled out.

Dieter, a death-penalty opponent, favors its use in only one circumstance - the convicted person chooses it.

Dieter wrote that, "Since we all know that life imprisonment can be 'cruel and unusual punishment' as well, let the accused choose how he'd like to spend the rest of his life. If he'd truly rather die than spend his whole life in jail, I find nothing wrong then in using the death penalty."

In fact, Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy, imprisoned for decades after he flew to Scotland during World War II, killed himself in 1987 with a noose made from the cord of a lamp. It was a self-imposed version of the death penalty.

But in most cases, society can't count on convicted murderers taking their own lives. And if incarcerated for life without possibility of parole, what incentive do they have to change? In fact, in an effort to assert control, to prove their manhood or pass some gang initiation, they just might kill again.

For such people, the challenge is to find a way to deter them from killing again without engaging in "cruel and unusual punishment."

(Do they deserve such consideration? No, but that's the way our system works.)

Based on the experience of Hess, whose warden, Eugene K. Bird, wrote a book in 1974 entitled, "The Loneliest Man in the World, The Inside Story of the 30-Year Imprisonment of Rudolf Hess," my proposed solution goes like this:

If the death penalty is too cruel for the courts to stomach, imprison the inmate for life, but in solitary confinement, away from the general prison population. Facing the prospect of a lifetime spent with no social contacts, or perhaps after experiencing such a lonely life for a few years, more than one murderer might volunteer for execution.

Not a nice thing to think about, but if the idea of such an exile deters one man from killing someone else's child, I can live with some unpleasant thoughts.

Bob Maginnis is

editorial page editor of

The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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