The Death Penalty: Grasping At Straws


August 22, 1993|By KEVIN THOMAS

When the news becomes too bleak and the murders too numerous and heinous, I become an avid supporter of the death penalty. This is my visceral reaction, as I'm sure it is for many people.

l We are all bombarded daily by news of the cruelest acts of violence man can commit against his fellow man. The death penalty is like grasping at straws. It's an attempt to put an end to extreme violence in a culture where fear and uncertainty stalk the innocent, violating the unexpecting with random cruelty.

In Howard County, residents are subjected to the daily recounting of the horrible death of Pam Basu and the trials of the men who murdered her. In exacting detail, we are endlessly told of the way in which she was dragged more than two miles tethered to a seat belt that wrapped around her wrist, her 2-year-old daughter in a car seat tossed along the side of the road.

While Rodney Solomon was sentenced Wednesday night to life in prison without parole for allegedly masterminding the carjacking that led to Dr. Basu's death, the death penalty seems justifiable to a public grown weary of excess. This is new territory for me. I have not always supported the death penalty, and even now I have my doubts.

This newspaper has an editorial position in opposition to the death penalty. And I have had to keep my feelings in check when writing on the subject for the editorial page.

I am sharing my feelings here because I can do that in this column, and because I believe there are many people like me, who have a gnawing ambivalence about the death penalty and are not entirely repulsed when it is used in capital offenses.

Part of it is the result of failures in the justice system. A 20-year sentence could mean two years before parole. A life sentence might bring release in a couple of decades.

Bernard Miller, the 17-year-old accomplice of Solomon, received a life sentence in the Basu case. He will be eligible for parole in 17 1/2 years. Because of his age, Miller could not be sentenced to death.

We don't yet know whether the death penalty will be requested by North Carolina prosecutors in another murder case, that of the two 18-year-olds accused of murdering James Jordan, the father of basketball great Michael Jordan.

Before the arrests were made, there was wide speculation in the media that the death of Mr. Jordan might be somehow connected to his son's high-stakes gambling habits or a kidnapping for ransom. It was, in a way, an attempt to make the crime seem understandable by attributing it to Michael Jordan's behavior and celebrity status.

The fact that it seems to have been a random act of violence -- James Jordan had merely pulled off the highway to rest at the wrong time, in the wrong place -- can only heighten the public's already deep-seated fear of crime.

Back in Howard County, officials were also trying to unravel the disappearance of a 15-year-old girl, who had not been seen for nearly a month. Her body turned up last Tuesday in a ditch near the Mall in Columbia. It is another reminder of how tenuous life has become. But even the death penalty offers scant comfort.

Since 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, 199 executions have been carried out in the United States. No proof exists -- in fact, proof may not be a possibility -- that the executions have been a deterrent to murder. If anything, the frequency and nature of violence has escalated. In Maryland, 14 men have been sent to death row since 1978, when the state reinstated the death penalty. Ten of those were sentenced in Baltimore County, where Solomon stood trial. Adding to the uncertainty surrounding the death penalty, no one in Maryland has been executed since its reinstatement. But that could change as appeals are exhausted.

For anyone wavering over the death penalty, as I am, the hardest hurdle to surmount is the question of what manner of execution. Defense attorneys for Solomon argued last week that the gas chamber, the only method of execution allowed in Maryland, is inhumane and that another option should be considered. Other states perform executions by lethal injection, electric chair, hanging, even firing squads. But Maryland is the lone state that retains the gas chamber as its only option.

Picking a method of execution is, for me, as difficult as throwing my full support to the death penalty. It draws me much too close to the violence that I would like to see ended.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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