Death and disparity

November 13, 2003|By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

THE SAME day that prosecutors in Washington state cut a deal with Gary Leon Ridgway, who admitted to murdering at least 48 women, making him the most gruesome serial killer in U.S. history, and was spared the death penalty, Virginia prosecutors continued to busily pull out all stops to get the death penalty for accused sniper John Allen Muhammad.

Mr. Muhammad's alleged crimes are heinous and repulsive, caused much personal pain and suffering and spread terror through several states, yet technically he is being tried for only one murder.

The case against him is mostly circumstantial, and there is much dispute over whether Mr. Muhammad, or his teen-age sidekick, Lee Boyd Malvo, was the triggerman. If Mr. Muhammad is convicted, and the betting odds are that he will be, Virginia will put him on the fast track to the death chamber. Mr. Ridgway will still be alive. But Mr. Muhammad, if convicted, wouldn't be the only condemned murderer to face execution or that has been executed for the killing of a single victim, while many multiple murderers such as Mr. Ridgway aren't executed.

Legal experts and even philosophers may fiercely debate whether one life holds more value than another, but there's tacit recognition in American law, public policy and custom that some lives are, in fact, more valued than others. Mr. Ridgway's victims were girls and young women who were runaways, drug users or prostitutes. And their family members repeatedly slammed authorities for foot-dragging in their investigation.

Also, is a killer who kills multiple times more deserving of the death penalty than one who kills only once? By that standard, Mr. Ridgway and all serial killers should be put to death. Yet, of the nearly 60 executions this year in America, only a handful of the killers have been put to death for killing more than one person.

Then there's the question of whether certain types of killers are less likely to get the death penalty than others. The list of those who have committed multiple murders yet routinely don't receive the death penalty is endless. It includes Mafia hit men, wealthy celebrities, businessmen and athletes.

There are 15,000-plus homicides in America yearly. Only a few hundred of those convicted of murder get the death penalty. If the killer is black or Latino, or has a rotten attorney, and the victim is white, middle class and well-educated, or the murder is committed anywhere in the South, the likelihood is much greater that the convicted killer will face execution.

In any case, the U.S. Supreme Court long ago rendered moot the debate over the proportionality of capital punishment. In 1984, the court ruled that the Constitution does not require the imposition of proportional sentences that are commensurate with the crime. In other words, the punishment does not always have to fit the heinousness of the crime.

The Supreme Court did urge the states to include proportionality standards in their death penalty laws to prevent "excessive" or "disproportionate" sentencing in death penalty cases. Though states are not legally obliged to include proportionality in their death penalty laws, most states that have the death penalty have enacted standards to help judges and juries determine whether a death sentence is appropriate.

Among the "mitigating circumstances" they are asked to consider are the killer's age, mental capacity and drug or alcohol abuse, and whether he or she has been physically or sexually abused. Numerous death penalty studies have found that a significant number of the more than 3,000 prisoners that sit on America's death rows have been beaten, brutalized or sexually assaulted, and that many are mentally retarded or subliterate.

The day before Mr. Ridgway copped his plea, Georgia and North Carolina executed mentally ill killers, and North Carolina has scheduled another execution of a mentally retarded man for tomorrow. In each case, the condemned was convicted of one murder.

Death penalty opponents hope that Mr. Ridgway's evading a date with the hangman will cause even more Americans to question the fairness of the death penalty, when one man can kill legions of people and stay alive while another is executed for killing one person.

This is wishful thinking.

A CNN poll taken immediately after his plea bargain found that the overwhelming majority of respondents were appalled at the deal and said that he deserved and should have gotten the death penalty. If anything, the mercy Mr. Ridgway got will deepen public suspicion that killers routinely mangle the criminal justice system, make backroom deals with prosecutors, and skip away from harsh punishment. This could increase the public clamor for more and speedier executions.

The death penalty can never be applied fairly. If it was in effect abolished for Mr. Ridgway, it should be abolished for all.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press, 1998). He lives in Inglewood, Calif.

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