From Death There Can Be No Appeal, and Some Criminals Deserve It

PETER A. JAY

August 12, 1991|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. - Funerals tend to encourage reflection on broad themes of life and death, and so it's probably not surprising that following the memorial service for a friend and neighbor of mine last week, I found myself once again wrestling with that old question of capital punishment.

My neighbor, Sid Kreider, was a physician at Johns Hopkins who died of cancer at the age of 56 -- an unfairly early end, it seemed to those who knew him, to an exemplary and unusually productive life. In addition to his professional accomplishments, Sid was an active conservationist and a devoted family man, and if he had been given more time there's little doubt he would have used it well.

Eric Tirado is antithetical to Sid Kreider in just about every way possible. But perhaps because during the last days of Sid's life the Tirado murder trial in Howard County had been so much in the news, as I drove home from the funeral I began musing about other lives and other deaths.

Eric Tirado was convicted of taking the life of Cpl. Theodore Wolf of the Maryland State Police in a cold-blooded and calculated murder. Mr. Tirado's lawyers sought to present him as a nice young man who made one bad mistake, but this picture was never quite in focus.

At his trial, the defendant made an obscene gesture toward the trooper's widow, a gesture prosecutors were not permitted to describe to the jury, which didn't see it. The jurors, after what must have been an excruciating deliberation, voted to spare Mr. Tirado's life -- he had begged them to do so -- and sentence him instead to life in prison.

It was a disappointing decision. If a cold-blooded cop-killer cannot be sentenced to die, then why retain a capital-punishment statute on the books at all? Wouldn't it be preferable to follow the European approach and scrap it entirely?

One can't very well criticize the Tirado jury, which confessed to a faint lingering doubt as to whether Mr. Tirado or the second defendant in the case, Francisco Rodriguez, actually pulled the trigger of the handgun that killed Corporal Wolf. And it's possible that this particular case isn't the perfect capital-punishment litmus test that it appears.

Mr. Tirado, unlike accused multiple killers such as Maryland's John Thanos or Milwaukee's Jeffrey Dahmer, did at least express something that might pass for remorse over his actions. His parents were poignant when they testified in his behalf. But if not this case, then which one? What do you have to do, in Maryland, to receive the maximum penalty?

Different people, and different generations, draw that line in different places.

In Pennsylvania, before 1786, the death penalty could be imposed for a number of crimes, including robbery, burglary, and sodomy. But a few years later, Pennsylvania, trying to redraw the capital punishment statute in line with contemporary thinking, came up with the practical concept of differentiating between two kinds of murders -- first and second degree.

Only first degree murder would be punishable by death. Most other states eventually followed Pennsylvania's lead.

Fifteen years ago, I covered a murder trial in Baltimore in which the 20-year-old defendant was accused of murdering six people by throwing a firebomb into their house, which burned. The house was that of his girlfriend, with whom he'd had a fight. He was very drunk at the time he threw the firebomb. He had no criminal record, and held a job; his employers spoke well of him.

The young man was in fact sentenced to die in the gas chamber, although the sentence was subsequently reduced. I wrote at the time that despite the horror of the crime, capital punishment was not called for. Many people disagreed with that assessment, and vigorously made me aware of their opinions. They drew that difficult line in a different place than I did.

Now, in 1991, I'd draw that line at the ruthless murder of a police officer. Is it more serious that Theodore Wolf was a policeman, and not a civilian Eric Tirado shot during a robbery attempt? You bet it is. And if it were my decision, Eric Tirado would die -- and I would hope he would die soon. Many Marylanders, I imagine, agree.

We don't, fortunately, sentence criminals by plebiscite. But when we have the death penalty on the books, yet never execute anyone, we encourage contempt for the process of criminal justice.

In New Jersey, the New York Times noted recently, in the nine years since capital punishment was once again authorized, the state's top appellate court has overturned the death penalty in 28 of the 29 cases it has reviewed. Can it really be that only one of those 29 convicted murderers deserved execution? If that's the case, the law might as well be scrapped once again.

I never discussed capital punishment with my friend Sid Kreider, but he was such a humane man I'd guess he would have been opposed to it. Although I would have respectfully disagreed, I can accept such a position.

But having the law on the books, and never using it, makes no sense to me. When after long debate we enacted the law, we drew an important line in the sand. If, after drawing it we continually ignore it, we invite only ridicule.

Peter A. Jay writes from Havre de Grace.

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