The Feelgood Effect of Capital Punishment


April 29, 1992|By RICHARD LOUV

SAN DIEGO. — San Diego -- "Gas 'im,'' people said, in the cafes and the barber shops. ''Gas 'im.'' But now it's all over and so is the shouting, until next time.

The relatives and friends of Robert Harris' victims are entitled, without judgment, to feel or express what they want about the execution last week of the man who, 14 years ago, murdered two teen-agers and then ate their hamburgers. But the rest of us need to decide what it is we really want.

Do we want immediate gratification and only that, or do we want to be protected from the Robert Harrises of the future?

Look what has changed since 1978, when Harris raised his gun.

A million semi-automatics, the weapons of choice for gangs and drug dealers, are in private hands. Between 1970 and 1990, the number of young Americans killed by firearms more than doubled. Homicide is now the leading cause of death among black males under the age of 35.

One-fourth of the nation's large school districts use metal detectors to search for weapons carried by students. The rate of criminal homicide in the United States is 10 times as great as that found in the major cities of Western Europe.

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics says the chance of being a violent-crime victim is greater than being hurt in a traffic accident.

In our frustration and anger we search for quick solutions.

But for a frightening number of young men growing up in the culture of violence, the suggestion that they might be executed for their crimes is laughable. They will tell you that they could be killed on the street, or tomorrow at school. They see this as more promise than threat.

''Maybe we've lost a generation,'' says Rosemary Erickson, of Athena Research Corp. She points to a growing body of evidence that murderers as children usually had no good role models, were discipled unevenly and unfairly, were neglected or abused.

''The lack of consistency and fairness of punishment seems to have mattered more than the severity of punishment.''

These days, that description also fits the criminal-justice system.

The pioneering researcher Dorothy Otnow Lewis, professor of psychiatry at New York University, says death-row inmates show a strikingly common profile. They are likely to suffer from neurological damage or deficiencies, and they are more likely to have been severely abused and neglected as children.

In 1988, she found that all 14 juveniles on death row in the United States had suffered from a serious head injury during childhood, the result of accidents or being beaten as children.

This should not suggest that all or most children who are abused grow up to be violent, but emotional and physical abuse, especially when combined with an early head injury, do indicate that something is terribly wrong.

Harris, weighing only 3 pounds, 14 ounces, came into the world shortly after his father kicked his mother in the stomach.

''[Harris' father] hit and knocked him out of his high chair, and he wouldn't let me do nothing for him,'' the mother testified. ''He picked him up and carried him and threw him on his bed, and his nose bled so profusely that it bled clear through the pillow.''

Harris' sister remembered how the father, drunk, ''had us line up in the kitchen, and he sat there and he took a bite of his hamburger and he spit it right in my brother Kenneth's face, and then he took another bite and he spit it on Robbie and Randy . . . just spit all over us and said we were dumb grunts.''

The sins of the father were visited upon the sons, and the sons passed them on. That is not an excuse, but a fact.

Harris' lawyers point to ''fetal alcohol syndrome.'' That is no excuse, but for 8,000 infants now born each year the syndrome is a fact. So is the violence that will come with the growing number of babies born addicted to crack cocaine and other drugs.

It's the height of cynicism to avoid the deeper causes, to dismiss a human being no matter how monstrous, with a glib ''Gas 'im.'' Except for the relatives of the victims, it is useless and unsavory to gain release or relief from the killing of Harris. ''Gas 'im,'' we said. ''Make my day.'' ''Hasta la vista, baby.''

The truth is that, until we take the next costly steps to prevent more Robert Harrises, the more accurate phrase, from the grave, will be, ''I'll be back.''

Richard Louv is a columnist for the San Diego Union.

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