Noble ideas don't deter killers who kill again

December 27, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

David Who?

Why didn't our esteemed judges on the Maryland Court of Appeals ask that question? Essentially, they've done just that in the death of David McGuinn.

Who's David McGuinn? Don't be embarrassed if you've forgotten. Our Court of Appeals judges clearly have, and they don't seem one bit ashamed of the fact. That's probably because right about now, they're feeling really noble about themselves with their decision to stop executions in Maryland. At least until public hearings are held on why strapping a killer to a gurney and injecting him with lethal drugs constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

McGuinn didn't get the option of having a public discourse on how he would die. He was just a corrections officer at the Maryland House of Correction who did his job as he was told. His dedication got him on an inmates' hit list. This past July, McGuinn was stabbed to death as he conducted a cell count. State officials have investigated the matter. Five months later, here's what we know:

Not a damned thing.

Because of the threats, McGuinn was assigned somewhere other than the inmate housing units. We don't know who reassigned him back there, or why. We don't know why McGuinn was doing the cell check alone, without backup. We don't know if the locks on the cells were defective.

The state of Maryland failed McGuinn in life. Now, courtesy of those noble Court of Appeals judges, we're trying our best to fail him in death. With no death penalty, just how will McGuinn's murderers be punished?

Lee E. Stephens and Lamarr C. Harris have been charged with killing McGuinn. Stephens is serving life plus 15 years for killing a man in 1997. Harris won't be going anywhere but from one Maryland prison to another for the rest of his days. He got a triple life sentence for killing two people in 1989.

Now that the noble judges have dispensed, albeit temporarily, with the death penalty, just how will Stephens and Harris be punished if they're found guilty? More life terms? Sorry, but they already have those.

The truth is that without a death penalty, there is no punishment for murderers serving life who murder corrections officers. This is not about deterrence, although that's what our esteemed Mayor Martin O'Malley, soon to be governor, seems to think.

"I'd like to see us evolve to the point in time where we understand the death penalty does not deter violent crime ... and the resources we put toward it could better be invested elsewhere," O'Malley piously - and nobly - intoned in a story by Sun reporter Jennifer McMenamin.

The death penalty has never been about deterrence. It's been about punishment. Hence the term "death penalty." But the good mayor-soon-to-be-governor may not even be right about deterrence. Dudley Sharp, who represents a victims-rights group called Justice For All, has claimed there are at least five studies that show the death penalty is a deterrent.

Don't expect Maryland's death penalty opponents - on the Court of Appeals or off it - to read any of these studies. They have what they think are their facts. They have their Holy Grail - the more than 100 "innocent" people released from death row since 1972.

Sharp disputes those figures, too. And we death penalty advocates have our own facts. We have Kenneth McDuff. We've also got Carl Cletus Bowles, Robert Massie and Richard L. Marquette. We can even use Barry Mills and Tyler Bingham as our poster boys.

McDuff, Bowles and Massie were all convicted killers. Bowles escaped while on a social pass in Oregon and murdered a couple in that state. Massie and McDuff were released from death row and paroled in California and Texas, respectively, after the noble justices of the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily struck down capital punishment nationwide with the Furman v. Georgia decision in 1972. Massie and McDuff killed again. Massie and McDuff were later executed, and didn't kill again.

Marquette killed and dismembered an Oregon woman in 1961. He got life imprisonment. He was paroled 12 years later and killed and dismembered another woman in 1975. Bingham and Mills are two imprisoned members of the Aryan Brotherhood gang who were recently found guilty of ordering their minions to attack and kill black inmates in Colorado prisons. Although Mills was serving a life sentence for a 1979 murder, jurors in his federal trial couldn't bring themselves to give him the death penalty.

The lesson here is that some killers do indeed kill again, even when they're behind bars. How do we punish them? How do we punish David McGuinn's killers?

The answer is that here in Maryland, with our appeals court judges and chief executives brimming with nobility, we don't.

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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