Bailey hanging adds fuel to death penalty debate Do executions serve justice or barbarism?

January 26, 1996|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

Billy Bailey's execution yesterday at a Smyrna prison ended a 17-year legal battle in Delaware. But the hanging, a rarity in an era when lethal injection has become the most widely used method of execution, has put fresh fuel on the debate over the death penalty.

Opponents say the hanging was vengeful barbarism, not justice. Killing people is not the way to stop killing, they argue. Supporters say Bailey, 49, deserved to die for the brutal 1979 murders of an elderly couple going about their lives on their farm near Cheswold when Bailey shot them and stole their truck. The real injustice, in their view, is that his execution took 17 years to happen.

The debate surely will continue in Delaware, where 13 other men have been sentenced to death. One, William Flamer, is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection Tuesday. More than 3,000 inmates are awaiting execution in the 38 states that have the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group in Washington.

In Utah, child murderer John Taylor is scheduled to be executed today by firing squad.

Early yesterday, about 100 people braved below-freezing temperatures and an icy wind at the Delaware Correctional Center to sing hymns and show their opposition to the death penalty. A thin picket fence divided them from about 25 supporters, many of them friends or relatives of Gilbert and Clara Lambertson, the couple Bailey murdered in 1979.

Support for Lambertsons

"The reason I'm here is to support the Lambertson family in their quest for justice," said Bob Carroll. "You do a crime like this, you should die -- and they should do it a lot quicker."

Beside him, another friend of the Lambertson family held a sign that said "16 1/2 Years of Wasted Tax Dollars." Nearby, the Lambertsons' two daughters and their sister-in-law spoke with tears in their eyes.

"The jurors told us way back what should be done," said Betty Wharton, one of the Lambertsons' four children. "Let's just say we close this chapter. The pain will never end."

On that, she and opponents of the death penalty agree: No justice, vengeful or otherwise, can ease the terrible loss of a family member to violence.

"That was an act of revenge pure and simple," said Anne `D Coleman, a death penalty opponent who became friends with Bailey as part of her prison activism. Ms. Coleman's daughter was murdered in Los Angeles several years ago and the murder remains unsolved. She is an activist with Murder Victims' Families For Reconciliation in Delaware.

"I can't afford that kind of vengeance in my heart," she said. "It is a destructive kind of vengeance."

Alice Marinopoulos, whose son John was murdered in 1988, sees it differently. She is a member of a group called Families and Friends of Murder Victims in Wilmington, and her group supports the death penalty. Vengeance is human and understandable, she says.

"I've got a lot of revenge in me," she says. "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of John, that I don't cry for him. Why should Robert Rodabaugh live when my son is dead?"

Rodabaugh, convicted of her son's murder, is serving a life sentence in Delaware. But Ms. Marinopoulos says she doesn't believe he'll serve life. "I know he'll eventually get out," she says.

That distrust of the justice system's ability to fulfill the promise made in a life sentence underlies much of the public support of the death penalty, says Richard Dieter. Mr. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, points to a Gallup poll that found 77 percent of Americans supported the death penalty last year.

But change the choice, he says, and that support drops off sharply. "When the question offered the alternative of life without parole, support fell below 50 percent," Mr. Dieter said. In his poll, 44 percent supported life without parole, with some kind of restitution included in sentencing, over the death penalty. Only 41 percent supported the death penalty over that alternative, he said.

More executions planned

The death penalty issue is not likely to fade soon in Delaware, which has Flamer's execution by lethal injection scheduled for next week, as well as 12 others in the pipeline. Only one -- James Riley -- could be a hanging, however; Riley was sentenced

before 1986, when the state switched from hanging to lethal injection. The choice is his, but he won't be asked to make it until a date for his execution has been set, corrections officials say.

Delaware has executed six people since 1992. But Bailey's choice of hanging focused the issue in a vivid way, some opponents say.

"It's uglier. It's crasser," says John Beer, a Delaware resident who opposes all forms of the death penalty. "It's more tangible than putting a person to sleep. It's more gruesome, it's more vengeful."

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