ABOUT TEN YEARS ago I interviewed the parents of a young woman who had been brutally raped and murdered by a total stranger. The father had found her, slashed and broken. It wasn't the first time I had need of intruding on someone's pain, nor was it the last. But that assignment left me more disturbed than any before or since. I have never seen such grief and hatred.
The murder was several years old (I was there to talk to a support group for victims), and the killer had been tried and sentenced to death. But these poor people would have laughed in my face had I been rude enough to ask if they had found ''closure.'' Their eyes had the look of constant crying; they wept the whole time I was there. Their voices shook. They kept the daughter's bedroom like a shrine. They said they had lost most of their friends; the perpetually grieving do not make good dinner partners.
I think they had another child, but they were not living for him. They lived for the day of execution. They wished they could kill the killer themselves, make him suffer. I have heard other victims say this, predictably, almost as if they were expected to say it. These people meant it. My heart broke for them, but they frightened me. Their hatred was leading them down a dark road. I was glad to get away.
Yet, having never known such horror, I found it hard to criticize their thirst for vengeance. How would I feel if it were my daughter? How do I know what I'd be capable of? If Flint Gregory Hunt had gunned down my flesh and blood the way he did Baltimore policeman Vincent Adolfo, would it bring satisfaction to see him suffocate on poison gas, as he probably will this week? I do not think it would; but I cannot say for sure.
The justice system's job
We have been posing these hypothetical cases for years -- a decade has passed since Michael Dukakis' bloodless responses to them helped sink his presidential bid -- but they are the wrong questions. The issue is not what we would want if we were the ones suffering, but whether it's the justice system's job to exact revenge on behalf of individuals.
The victim's-rights movement holds that it is -- or more accurately, that the system should put the victims' needs, whatever they may be, on the same plane as the defendant's rights. Leaders of the movement acknowledge that the defendant's right to a fair trial and sentencing should be paramount, but the impact of this crusade is impinging on that.
More and more, the public expects the court to provide catharsis and/or retaliation for victims. Media coverage of every legal maneuver includes a response from them, fueling public pressure for the system to consider their wishes. The focus of judicial proceedings is in danger of shifting from the facts regarding a defendant's guilt, innocence or responsibility toward the emotions of victims and survivors -- even though a victim's pain does not prove the defendant caused that pain or necessarily determine how he should be punished if he did.
The prosecutors in the Timothy McVeigh trial walked this line very closely. They stayed on the right side, because they had solid evidence against McVeigh to balance all the heart-rending testimony. But what about weak cases?
In Florida recently, grieving relatives of dead teens lined the courtroom at the trial of three young adults accused of causing a fatal traffic accident by vandalizing a stop sign. The only evidence linking them to the sign was the fact that they had pulled out other signs; testimony suggested a truck may have knocked down this one. Nonetheless, they were were sentenced to 15 years for manslaughter. Which counted for more: evidence, or emotion?
Now victims' needs have become a popular argument for capital punishment. Deep down, support for the death penalty has always been rooted in something primal, but until recently Americans were reluctant to admit that; deterrence was the thing. Now we don't care if capital punishment effectively deters crime. The question is no longer what will preserve an orderly, safe society, but what victims want. Will a death sentence help them? There is no question of Flint Gregory Hunt's guilt. If Vincent Adolfo's family wants his life, most Americans believe they should have it.
I won't light a candle if Hunt dies this week. There is a case, I think, for capital punishment as a kind of self-defense for society. Whether it supersedes the moral argument against any premeditated killing is a question I'm still struggling to resolve.
But we should fear a society that equates justice with vengeance, that kills because someone wants the killing. I saw the desire for blood in the eyes of a murdered girl's parents. It was something to be understood -- not something to be indulged.
Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 6/29/97