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Cruel and unusual

By Lady Liberty
web posted October 25, 2004

Americans on both sides of the death penalty issue are looking forward to an upcoming Supreme Court hearing on whether or not the ultimate punishment is appropriate for those who committed their crimes before they were 18 years old. As is to be expected, those against the imposition of the death penalty are even more against it in cases involving the relatively young; a few seem to have rethought their position where youth is a factor, but many advocates of capital punishment point to the heinousness of crimes they say warrant death no matter who commits them.

I've gone on record more than once that I believe the nature of the crime is what must determine the nature of the punishment. At the same time, I don't think that the IQ of a violent criminal must necessarily be a mitigating factor when you consider that an inability to think in depth about right and wrong means with certainty that the man or woman in question can never, under any circumstances, be rehabilitated and will thus forever remain a grave danger to others. And there are crimes of such violent and amoral nature that I don't think age can't be used as an excuse, either.

As an example of the latter, three teenagers in a community where I once lived were arrested and convicted of the truly horrific torture of a young local woman. The woman, who very nearly died, survived with massive physical scarring and disability surpassed only by the emotional damages she suffered. The subhumans who committed the awful crime consisted of two 16 year-olds and the 14 year-old ringleader. Having read the details of the torture personally, I can honestly tell you I've no problem with seeing a criminal like that, whatever his age, strapped to a gurney with a needle in his arm. I agree we've all been young and stupid at one time or another, but I don't imagine too many of us repeatedly stabbed red-hot tools into living flesh!

My apparent hardline stance on capital punishment is significantly mitigated, however, by one crucial caveat: I believe that criminals must be convicted and punished if they're found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but should only be executed if there's no doubt at all. Too many men on death row have been released after new and more technologically advanced tests are done; too many prisoners have gone free after others confessed or errors were discovered and acknowledged. So a certain grievousness of action must be combined with certainty of guilt before I can say that I'm willing to see capital punishment imposed.

I say all this merely to make it clear to you that I don't necessarily oppose capital punishment. I am, in fact, entirely convinced that there's no more suitable penalty for some particularly terrible crimes. There are those, of course, who disagree with me quite vehemently. But I'm willing to bet that the most angry death penalty advocate and the most vociferous death penalty opponnet could agree with me on two things: that innocents should not suffer such a punishment, and that most crimes don't warrant death.

Just a few days ago, a woman of my acquaintance lost her only daughter. This bright and beautiful young woman will be buried on what would have been her 28th birthday. At the moment, her family is numbed by their loss and stunned at the senselessness of the car accident that took her life. But I'm sufficiently at a distance to wonder if there wasn't some perverse sense behind the accident after all, unjust and immoral as it may have been. You see, she died directly as the result of the commission of a simple theft and the authorities' attempts to punish that crime.

The police received a call from a business owner in Rochester, New York saying that a couple of men were behind his place of business attempting to steal a snowblower. The officers dutifully responded. When they arrived, however, the thieves ran. Instead of making use of any evidence and eye-witness reports at hand, the police took off after the men. To their credit, when police saw that the pair weren't about to stop and that the speed and recklessness of the chase was dangerous, they decided to use the information they already had to catch the men at a later and safer time (a police spokesman says policies in place there consider whether the risks "outweigh the gravity of the offense"). Unfortunately, they didn't stop the chase soon enough.

The van, ignoring traffic signals while still running from the police, stopped only after it hit a car carrying several innocent young women. My friend's daughter suffered serious head injuries in the crash; she lingered for five days in a coma before the impossibly difficult decision was made to remove her from a respirator. A young woman lost her life and her family lost their child. How can this possibly be a just punishment for mere theft no matter who it is that dies? Of course, that an innocent perished makes it worse. But would it really have been much better or more just if it were the thief or a cop who died instead?

Several years ago, an elderly couple in Cleveland, Ohio were on their way to a favorite restaurant for an early dinner. Just before they reached an intersection, a car turned through it at a high rate of speed. As the couple's own vehicle passed through the intersection, pursuing police careened into the couple's car and killed them both. Other accidents across the country have similar tales of cause and effect (and those who live in LA can watch them unfold on live TV on a shockingly regular basis). As a result, many states and municipalities have passed laws having to do with police chases and when the accompanying risks are warranted.

As nearly as I can tell, the equation is a relatively simple one that requires nothing from Congress or state legislators, and not much more than that from common sense. If cops and criminals were driving the only cars on the road, I'd say that they can run and chase as either pleases. But they're not. And since we already know the bad guys don't really care about much else but getting away, it's up to the cops to exercise, laws or no laws, some of their common sense to protect the public they're sworn to serve. Police have got to ask themselves before a high speed chase gets underway if the crime warrants such action. If the suspects don't pull over and, in fact, speed up when sirens and flashing lights are right behind them, or if they run on sight of the police, that's decision time. Waiting until the speedometer already says 90 mph is too late to determine the danger is greater than the crime and to break off the chase. Witness, after all, the Rochester event.

A sniper with a long-range rifle who's just shot a couple of victims and may be on his way to shoot several more; a man known to be transporting a dirty bomb; or a man who's just been seen stabbing an elderly couple to death have all committed crimes I think potentially warrant the death penalty. And since other innocents are clearly at risk even in the near term by letting such criminals go even if only for a matter of hours or days, police should consider the risk of an accident that kills an innocent or two to be one worth taking (though certainly never worth it to any who lose a loved one). But a chase merely to issue a speeding ticket or to recover a stolen snowblower? That's worth a couple of hundred bucks or a short jail sentence. No one should have shed any blood let alone died over such a thing.

Even immediately after the accident, the police claimed to know who the driver of the van was. They have since arrested their suspect. Allegedly in violation of parole, he'll probably have a charge of manslaughter or vehicular homicide added to the laundry list of other allegations against him. The police will likely be praised for bringing the man to justice. But I can't imagine there's anybody out there who would say the price of putting this man behind bars with an additional few years tacked onto his sentence was worth the cost.

We as members of the general public need to cut the police a little slack when they choose to delay the arrest of garden variety criminals for safety's sake. The police, meanwhile, need to pull back a little of their own pride -- or hubris, as the case may be -- and let the bad guys go if only for a little while. Better still, we ought to take a hard look at eliminating some of the multitude of frivolous and unnecessary laws that have the police seeing illegal actions at every turn, particularly when even those innocent of all but relatively minor crimes have been known to panic sufficiently to run when pursued. Unfortunately, when it gets right down to it, yet another death because of a police chase will probably only result in yet another ordinance to further define when it is and is not appropriate to engage in a high speed chase.

Lisa's life was nowhere near as long as it should have been, but her years here weren't wasted. She loved and was loved, and she brought joy into the lives of those who knew her. That's a worthy legacy in and of itself. Her father has publicly wondered if perhaps the purpose behind his daughter's death was to "get his [the driver of the van] butt off the streets" ostensibly so he wouldn't hurt anybody else. Maybe so, but if that's the case, her life was sold far too cheaply to put a thief behind bars.

Instead, think what a monument it would be to this young woman if her death got just enough additional attention to overzealous law enforcement and an overabundance of laws that some real reforms could be made. It won't bring back this lovely girl whose short life will ever be a bittersweet memory for those who knew her, and whose death will always be a bottomless hole in her mother's heart. But at least it would be something important and meaningful enough to all Americans that it would begin to pay back the smallest portion of everything else that was lost when Lisa died.

In memory of Lisa K., 1976-2004

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

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