Time To Stop And Think About The Death Penalty
Assume that even the most cold-blooded, amoral, wicked murderer is capable of brief moments of contemplation and calculation, before he kills.
For a moment, perhaps, before the shot is fired, before the knife is plunged, before the hands are tightened around the neck, time stands still and the killer weighs the implications of what is about to occur.
The much-debated issue of whether the death penalty is a deterrent has, at its heart, the premise that the criminal poised to kill may be swayed by the threat of state-imposed execution; may decide not to kill, or to kill in such a way as to somehow deter a final needle in the arm.
The complicated jurisprudence surrounding capital punishment cases explores all manner of criminal behavior and decision-making. The criminal and even the victims' family can engage in weird legal theater during the tortuous process of determining whether death is the appropriate punishment.
Again, much of this assumes at least a modest bit of pre-crime decision-making on the part of the murderer - a strange legal environment that grants the criminal the possibility to somehow pretty up the murder in such a way as to avoid capital punishment.
There is a certain madness in this, of course. It summons up the possibility that a murderer should solicit public relations counsel before the killing; advice to how to kill in such a way as to receive, perhaps, a life sentence rather than a death sentence.
The issue becomes even more complex in a state such as Connecticut, where the death penalty exists in theory, but cowardly politicians and judges won't actually allow the rule of law to show its pretty face. Except, of course, for Michael Ross, who had to beg the Connecticut legal system to be executed - the first execution in New England in 45 years.
Connecticut is, thus, a strange laboratory in which to test the implications of the death penalty on the decision-making of a murderer. Is the killer relatively confident that he will die of old age in prison, no matter if he is sentenced to death or not? If that is the case, does it discourage him from any thought of prettying up the crime, of somehow showing "compassion," if that is the appropriate word, when he is poised to kill?
Jessie Campbell III, the Bloomfield creature sentenced to death in August for killing his girlfriend, and for killing a friend of his girlfriend, and for shooting yet another woman in the head, will never be executed. We all know that.
Did he know it? Is that why, instead of "only" killing his girlfriend, he went on his semi-rampage? Did he know that the second and third shootings were, in effect, freebies; that even if the two other shooting put him over the capital punishment edge, that he would never be executed?
And what of the accused Cheshire home-invasion monsters? Again, they will never be executed, because Connecticut runs away from its legal responsibilities.
The two Cheshire killer-rapist-robber monsters are "career" criminals; they know how the game is played. Once you've killed in Connecticut, the other killings and rapes or other outrages are a bonus, because you already know you're going to be locked up forever. You won't be executed, no matter what you have done, no matter what the law demands.
Much of the research and debate on capital punishment focuses on the deterrence issue. Equally interesting, perhaps, is whether the lack of a death penalty or the failure to carry out the death penalty encourages killers to additional mayhem, once the "life in prison" sentence is assured.
To do away with the death penalty is certainly widespread and reasonable public policy, but it leaves unanswered the question of what you do differently with a mass murderer, or a rapist-murderer, as opposed to a "simple" killer. Send him to his cot without any dinner? It would be a depressing bit of madness to produce an endless, expensive, futile murder trial for the two Cheshire home-invasion defendants. They made no effort to pretty up the crime. The death sentence seems likely and appropriate.
But so what? Connecticut will never kill them. The level of horror that they inflicted is irrelevant to the end result. Let them plead it out quickly, get locked up forever - thus allowing Connecticut politicians to huff and puff about getting tough on crime, without having to actually enforce the death penalty law on the books.
Laurence D. Cohen is a public policy consultant who served as special assistant to former Gov. John G. Rowland. His column appears every other Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.