To end death penalty, make life mean life

May 28, 2002|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO -- There are lots of reasons why Americans support the death penalty, but ultimately much of the support can be explained in two words: Charles Manson.

Manson was the leader of a weird California cult that in 1969 carried out some of the most notorious murders in American history, killing seven people in an orgy of bloodletting. Manson was convicted and sentenced to die in the gas chamber after the prosecutor called him "one of the most evil, satanic men who ever walked the face of the earth."

But the state's death penalty law was invalidated by the Supreme Court, and Manson's sentence was reduced to life. On nine different occasions since then, Manson has come up for parole. That's nine times the American people have gotten to turn on their newscasts, see Manson's maniacal face and scream, "He's eligible for what? You mean he could be back out on the streets next week?"

There is absolutely no chance that a parole board would ever set Manson free. But even the theoretical possibility is infuriating as well as scary. If he had been executed long ago, of course, that option would not exist. And if capital punishment is what it takes to foreclose it, most people would say it's appropriate.

Until recently, the death penalty was the only practical way to ensure that the most brutal killers would never be unleashed to kill again. A life sentence was not truly a life sentence: A typical murderer could apply for release after seven years or so. Today, though, 42 states allow murderers to be sentenced to life with no chance of parole -- which really means no chance of parole.

Does the option matter? You bet it does. Two out of every three Americans, asked if they favor the death penalty, say yes. But in a 1993 poll, only 49 percent said they support it if the alternative was no parole, ever. And only 41 percent said they endorsed it if the alternative is locking the killer up for good and requiring him to make restitution. And that was before we became aware of how often death sentences are given to innocent people.

Americans don't want savage murderers ever released to claim more victims. But the death penalty, for many of its supporters, is only a means to that end -- and not necessarily the best means.

Giving juries the choice can make a big difference in what they do. That issue was at the heart of a Supreme Court decision in June 2000 involving a man who shot a clerk to death during a convenience store robbery.

While it was considering punishment, the jury asked the judge if the killer would be eligible for parole under a life sentence -- which, because of a "three strikes" law, he would not. The judge answered, "You are not to concern yourselves with what may happen afterward." Faced with the fear that he might be out of jail in a few years, the jury then sentenced the killer to death.

Three jurors later said they would have rejected a death sentence if they had known parole was not a possibility. Yet the Supreme Court said that because one of the defendant's "three strikes" convictions was not final, the judge was right to keep the information from the jury.

Those jurors probably would have come out with a different verdict had they known they could lock the murderer up and throw away the key. Most people in this country simply don't trust parole boards to keep killers behind bars. One poll found that only 4 percent of Americans think convicted murderers will spend the rest of their lives in prison.

The chief concern of many juries is not to take a killer's life but to make sure he will never take another. Life without parole serves all the legitimate purposes of the death penalty without the risk of fatal errors. Most Americans who favor capital punishment may come to prefer the alternative, just as soon as they realize there really is an alternative.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays in The Sun.

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