On the death penalty

July 31, 1991

Three highly publicized murder cases have been in the news in recent days, raising once more the question of when, if ever, the death penalty is appropriate.

* On Monday a jury sentenced Eric Tirado to life without parole in the killing of State Police Cpl. Theodore D. Wolf.

* Last Thursday, the state negotiated a guilty plea with 16-year-old O'Donald Johnson who was tried as an adult in the execution-style killing of David Gordon, a 25-year-old engineer. The state asks a 55-year sentence for Johnson, who will be eligible for parole at some point.

* On Monday the notorious multiple murderer John F. Thanos was sentenced to 50 years in a robbery kidnapping of a man who, by every reasonable interpretation of the evidence presented at the trial, Thanos intended to kill in a particularly horrible manner -- suffocation in the trunk of a car in the August heat of Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Leave aside for the moment that Thanos faces trial for the murder of three teen-agers on which he can receive the death penalty. If we consider only the three cases adjudicated so far, which defendant deserved the more severe penalty?

By any rational standard, it seems to us, Thanos merits the harshest judgment. And yet he was spared even the possibility of the death penalty not because his malevolent intent was absent but rather because someone happened to come along just in time to save his victim from a ghastly death.

According to testimony, O'Donald Johnson pulled the trigger as his victim lay in the snow pleading for his life, imploring his killer to think of his young wife and small child. Yet Johnson received the second least severe penalty.

Tirado's act was, without question, a cold-blooded killing. And yet Corporal Wolf may at least have escaped the ordeal of knowing that his death was imminent; he was spared the anguish of spending his final conscious moments on Earth thinking of the young woman who was about to become a widow and the child who was about to become fatherless. And yet Tirado received the harshest sentence, and was the only one of the three who faced the death sentence.

These three cases point up that the death penalty in practice is a highly arbitrary matter, and its application depends often on many highly subjective considerations.

But the outcome of the Tirado trial also points up another aspect of the death penalty that is often forgotten. After the verdict was rendered, Corporal Wolf's young widow stated that she would have preferred to see him receive the maximum sentence. This emotion is entirely understandable. Yet she also recognized the difficulty of the decision the jury confronted, and in the end she seemed satisfied that as much justice was rendered as is possible in this terrible case.

If the jury had given Tirado the death penalty, the Wolf family today would not have the sense that their ordeal had ended. If the death penalty had been imposed, instead of getting on with their lives, they would have confronted only endless delays, appeals, perhaps new trials, and a penalty, if it were ever imposed at all, that would be imposed only many years after the event.

These three cases dramatically illustrate, once more, that the death penalty serves neither victim nor society, and it should be abolished once and for all.

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