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Obscured by death penalty debate is that kids need a chance

February 03, 2008|By TIM ROWLAND

Even the judge seemed angry with the verdict.

"You are an evil man, sir," Judge Joseph Manck said to convicted corrections officer murder Brandon Morris, while sentencing him to life in prison and forgoing the death penalty in the process. "You took from the Wroten family the center of their universe."

And Morris' defense attorney appeared to have his doubts. "Brandon Morris did a very evil thing," said Arcangelo Tuminelli, who didn't speak to his client after the sentencing.

The truth was inescapable. Jeff Wroten, a man who should be alive, is dead. Brandon Morris, a man many believe should be dead, will go on living.

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Wroten's family released a heartbreaking statement, accurately summarizing the state of affairs: "This killer had a choice to make and that choice was the cold-blooded killing of Jeff Wroten, the father of four daughters and one stepson ... We will continue to deal with the fact their father left for work and never returned."

And what must the mood have been the next day at the state prison complex south of Hagerstown? For them, the death penalty is the fail-safe. If a prisoner is doing life, there is precious little else for him to lose by attacking a corrections officer - unless, of course, he is in fear of losing his life.

Except in this case, Morris wasn't facing life; he was scheduled for release in May. He didn't need to stage a trip to the hospital. He didn't need to escape. After he took Wroten's gun he didn't need to shoot anyone - who is going to try to chase down an armed man?

All this tells you a lot about Morris' thought process: He doesn't have any.

There was no contemplative power, no sense of reason. The death penalty is often mentioned as a deterrent, but in this case it didn't deter anything. To be a deterrent, the death penalty depends on a rational state of mind, a commodity that killers, almost by definition, usually lack.

So we fall back on the death penalty as a sense of justice, a due punishment for an unspeakable act of cruelty. It's some degree of solace for the living victims of the crime - in this case, Wroten's family, whose views over whether Morris should live or die should carry far more weight than yours or mine.

Judge Manck, in what some may see as a rather ineffective attempt to make the family feel better, said that a life sentence brings closure for the family, even if it isn't exactly the closure the family wants.

The judge has a point. Were Morris sentenced to death, the appeals would drag on for years - years of court hearings, years of Morris' photo on the front page, years or awful, rekindled memories. And then what if you go through all that, and in the end his appeal succeeds? Years of gut-churning have netted nothing.

That's a risk Wroten's family says it would be willing to take. A lot of us would. We would like to see one little bit of sense come out of a horribly baffling set of circumstances.

But Judge Manck did us all this favor: If we are cheated out of a sense of order that would be established by Morris' death, we are forced to seek out a sense of order in other places. It's a sense, or at least an understanding, that none of us want to look for, or look at. It's too overwhelming, too depressing.

This understanding can be found in the lawless streets of Baltimore, where Morris' grew up with absolutely no chance. The Herald-Mail reported that "Morris' mother was abusive to all her children, but especially him, and his father was incarcerated in Virginia throughout Morris' childhood. Morris suffered physical abuse from his mother, her boyfriends and his stepfather, and sexual abuse from a man named Sam."

None of this makes Morris any less "evil." But I doubt there is a person in America who would look at his childhood and predict that Morris' life story would come complete with a happy ending.

Judge Manck was uniquely and sadly equipped to adjudicate this case because his mother was murdered 12 years ago. He's been there. He isn't some ivory tower judge gratuitously sparing Morris' life because he doesn't understand the pain.

Perhaps in his personal reflections, the judge asked himself this: Does Morris do the cause of civilization more good dead, or alive?

The easy answer is dead. We wipe him from this earth and from our memories. But the hard, grating answer is that Morris life represents the things that must be changed if we want to truly reduce the instances of awful events similar to what the Wroten family, the corrections family and the community have all been through.

We cannot forget Jeff Wroten, nor does it serve us to forget Brandon Morris - in particular, his upbringing. Every child deserves a chance. It bears repeating. Every child deserves a chance. Morris represents what we get when children do not get that chance. We get evil.

Even considering his background, Morris may very well deserve to die. He made his choices. And that way we could comfort ourselves, knowing that this particular evil is gone. But there's plenty more evil where this came from. And until we stop pretending that awful conditions for children do not exist, families like Wroten's will continue to grieve and judges across the country will continue to have to make these life-and-death calls.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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