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Published: Saturday, 5/12/2001

Some nagging doubts about the death penalty

Barring still further delays, both state and federal execution chambers will be whirring soon as condemned men are sent to their just rewards. I will not be among those holding a candle at some anti-death penalty vigil lamenting the execution of deserved capital punishments. But I won't be cheering our legalized killings either. Truth is, I'm stuck in a gray zone, hopelessly conflicted about the pros and cons of executing Death Row inmates. And I didn't used to be.

There was a time more than a decade ago when I would have volunteered to pull the switch or send the lethal chemicals rushing into a damned prisoner's body without a second thought. But back then I had a reason to rally behind such extreme revenge: My 24-year-old first cousin, Anne, was savagely stabbed and left to die on a street in a small town near Portland, Ore.

Her utterly numb relatives were beyond disbelief. We gathered at her parents' home and fumbled for words. We retraced what were believed to be her last steps the night of the murder on Sept. 18, 1988. We tried to stir up police leads by tacking up dozens of yellow posters around town with a picture of a blond, blue-eyed Anne smiling beneath bold headlines that read: Police Investigation. Did you see this girl?

We shared our feeble theories with detectives about what might have happened in the wee hours of that fateful Sunday morning. My cousin apparently accepted a ride from a driver she recognized as she walked home from a commuter train station after a night out with friends.

Nearby residents who were awakened by the sounds of a woman screaming, summoned police when they saw a body lying in the road. Anne was dead by the time police and rescue personnel arrived on the scene.

We fantasized out loud about what we'd like done to her killer once the murdering S.O.B. was brought to justice. It was not a pretty picture. The execution would be ugly and excruciatingly painful, nothing less than his victim suffered.

It gave us some small consolation to plan the most ruthless eye-for-an-eye revenge on the someone who had turned on my youngest cousin and put her through such horror before she finally succumbed to the fatal knife wounds. Such a brief life. Such a tragedy of unfulfillment, said the priest at her memorial service. Such a tragedy of connections broken.

To a family reeling from the murder of one of their own, the death penalty was no small price to pay for their pain. But time has a way of blurring previously immutable black-and-white positions with confounding shades of gray. Which is not to say I would feel differently about executing Anne's assailant should that person ever be found, convicted, and sentenced to die.

It is only human to want to avenge an unspeakable crime against a loved one with the full force of vindictive spirit. It is the sort of retribution I had hoped would be exacted on Anne's killer. But hers remains an unsolved murder and, after almost 13 years of waiting for some closure on the case, I've grown less strident about the death penalty as a one-size-fits-all way to even the score.

It is not a punishment meted out fairly. That is, it is not applied evenly to all those convicted of the same heinous crimes. The scales of justice have never been balanced equally between poor and rich or black and white defendants.

Chances are innocent men have been executed by the state because of mistakes, malfeasance, or worse. Even one innocent man put to death should be one too many. Today, some Death Row inmates are being saved from execution because of advanced DNA technology. What about those who walked to the death chamber proclaiming their innocence without benefit of such testing to support doubt about their guilt?

Why do the courts differentiate between mental conditions like retardation and mental illnesses like schizophrenia when granting a reprieve to one Death Row inmate and not another? Why do we make martyrs out of twisted mass murderers by giving them the attention and legacy they crave when life in prison stripped of any public platform would be hell enough?

Why do we have working death chambers when we have more nagging questions than answers about public executions? I don't know and, conversely, I don't know if I want to stop them.

You know why I'm conflicted, but I suspect many others without an Anne to reflect on are likewise struggling with old convictions about the death penalty.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade editorial writer. E-mail her at mjohanek@theblade.com.



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