Three down, are more to come? Capital punishment is wrong, but Maryland continues with executions

November 22, 1998|By Colman McCarthy

BECAUSE Maryland is a comparative novice in the execution industry - only three killings in the last decade, well behind old pros such as Texas, Virginia and Florida - Tyrone X Gilliam's last days and then his death on Monday earned intense media and public attention. The novelty of governmental killings was a grabber.

In most of the specifics, the ritual of Gilliam's end adhered to the pattern found elsewhere in state-sanctioned killings. The customary square-off between lawyers occurred: a defense attorney fruitlessly filing appeals to judges, while prosecutors remain dogged to the end in attempting to get their man. Religious leaders and death penalty abolitionists issued pleas for mercy, while the governor, an upholder of the law, stood firm.

For all of this predictability, the Gilliam execution had some twists. The parents of the murder victim - Christine J. Doerfler - had opposing views. The mother, described as a devout Catholic, said Gilliam should have been spared; the father said he should have been killed.

Newsworthy as this might have been, such splits are common, even among family members. Maryland's lieutenant governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who lost her father and uncle to murderers, supports the death penalty. Politically, this means she dare not differ from her patron, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, even if it means rejecting the views of her younger sister, M. Kerry Cuomo. In the foreword to the 1989 book, "A Punishment in Search of a Crime: Americans Speak Out Against the Death Penalty," she wrote, "I was eight years old when my father [Sen. Robert F. Kennedy] was murdered. It is almost impossible to describe the pain of losing a parent to a senseless murder. And in the aftermath, it is similarly impossible to quiet the confusion: 'Why him? Why this? Why me?' But even as a child, one thing was clear to me: I didn't want the killer, in turn, to be killed. I remember lying in bed and praying, 'Please, God. Please don't take his life, too.' I saw nothing that could be accomplished in the loss of one life being answered with the loss of another. And I knew, far too vividly, the anguish that would spread through another family - another set of parents, children, brothers, and sisters thrown into grief."

Although not always covered by journalists - those who unfailingly provide the details of killers' last meals - such feelings are common. They find organizational expression in Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, a national group with more than 3,000 members (Box 4804, Charlottesville, Va. 22905).

One of the founding members is Marie Deans, whose mother-in-law was murdered by an escaped prisoner in South Carolina in 1972. At the scene of the murder, Deans recalls being told by a well-meaning police friend that the state would track down the killer. "Don't worry, Marie," the friend told her, "we'll get the bastard and fry him." Deans replied, "No, you won't." Deans has since devoted her professional life to investigating wrongful-death penalty convictions. She is a regular visitor to America's death rows, with prisoners revering her as a person of compassion and immense energy for legal and social reform.

I asked Deans a few years ago about the people she has befriended on death row. "I have yet to find a case," she said, "where there wasn't a red flag thrown up years ago - in grammar school or somewhere - where a kid said, 'I'm in trouble, help me.' He gave us the message loud and clear, and we didn't pay attention. And he ended up, years later, going down and killing someone. Let me tell you something. I resent the hell out of that as a member of a murder victim's family. I These governors, these prosecutors I all getting up and saying, 'I care about victims, I want the death penalty.' If they cared about victims, they would have taken care of that victimized kid when he was six years old and prevented a homicide later."

Increasingly, one-time death penalty supporters are changing into opponents. For centuries, Catholic popes and bishops argued that state executions were God's will. The Roman Catechism of 1566 cited the eighth verse of the 100th Psalm of David as justification for beheadings and hangings: "In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord."

Though America's Catholic bishops are absolutely opposed to executions, leaders in Rome are not. Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical, "Evangelium Vitae," fogs the issue by stating that punishment "ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society."

Such cases, the pope equivocated, are "very rare, if not practically nonexistent."

On the current U.S. Supreme Court, all nine members favor executions. How many will shift their views upon retirement? Two former justices, Harry Blackmun and Lewis Powell, did on leaving the court. "The death penalty," said Blackmun, "remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice and mistake." Blackmun said in 1994, "From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death."

Powell, who cast the deciding vote in McCleskey vs. Kemp, a Georgia case that claimed the state's execution policy was racist against blacks, later regretted rejecting the argument that the death penalty is unconstitutional. He said, "Capital punishment should be abolished."

How many people might be alive today if both justices had come to these views earlier?

Colman McCarthy directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C. He teaches courses on nonviolence at six Washington-area schools.

Pub Date: 11/22/98

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