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Hit me with your best shot, fire away

by anna at 09:34 AM on May 16, 2003

Surely you remember the Beltway Snipers, who terrorized a swath of land from Baltimore, MD to Richmond, VA. Their bloody exploits mushroomed into an international story. Then came the run-up to the war and media put the snipers on its back burner.

Here in the DC area, however, the saga continues. These are the latest absurd developments: 18 year old Lee Boyd Malvo, an avowed vegetarian, does not care for the veggie-burgers his jailers serve. He also complains vociferously about jailhouse conditions, as though it isn't a huge step up from living in a $250 jalopy with a man twice his age. Damn ingrate.

Malvo is being held in the Fairfax County jail. Having pumped gas at one of his crime scenes, I've followed his case with interest. Also, he stands acccused of gunning down a defenseless woman from the grounds of my elementary school. His wily lawyers have come up with a novel ploy. They seek a change of venue, because he's charged with not only murder but committing an act of terrorism. Therefore every citizen of Fairfax County was a victim of his crime. Are you buying into this cockamamie theory?

Either way, I am here to tell you that we did indeed feel terrorized. One lady I knew would wait for a shooting to occur and then scurry out to run errands, figuring that lightning seldom strikes twice. In a way it was like the aftermath of Sept 11. Random politeness increased. Strangers would strike up sniper-related conversations from nearby restaurant tables. We all felt vulnerable as hell. I don't know that either Malvo or his sidekick John Muhammed could get a fair shake here.

Remember Chief Moose, the taciturn cop thrust into the limelight by these tragic events? Well, he's been back in the local news too. Turns out he wants to write a book but his employer will not allow him to profit from his experiences as a civil servant. He's thus been forced to sue the county. I myself hope he prevails.

Know this: Despite his tender age, Malvo is a goner. Like Timothy McVeigh, this guy might as well be a poster child for the pro-death penalty crowd. Still, I remain kind of ambivalent about the American-style death penalty. It's not so much that I object on moral grounds. Rather, I believe that justice unduly delayed is justice negated. The average stay on death row is twelve years. That's 13,140 square meals at taxpayer expense. It's also in stark contrast to China, where you are convicted and then marched out back and shot with no further ado. Now that's a deterrent!

For what it's worth, here's my wild-eyed proposal: End this patchwork deal whereby some states execute and others don't. Eliminate the blatant sexism in our application of the death penalty. Strictly define what sorts of cases qualify. Then provide each capital defendant with an O.J.-style Dream Team; sneaky ones with a proven track record of getting guilty persons off the hook. Equip them with all the requisite investigators and DNA geeks. Let them take their best shot at winning an acquital or cozy plea bargain at the trial court level. In return for this luxury few murderers could ever hope to afford, the defendant forfeits any right to appeal. Should he lose, then treat him or her Chinese-style. What do you think? Could such a policy have averted this wave of random murder and mayhem? Would we feel any safer?

comments (31)

I'm not sure that even with the O.J team defending these people, justice would be served most of the time. Too many guilty ones would get away in that case and the innocent ones would still occassionally get fried.

I don't object to the death penalty as a means of punishing people. Some crimes are heinous enough to deserve it and the Chinese method is certainly more of a deterrent thatn the American method. The problem I have with the death penalty is the number of innocent people who die under it. The American judicial system is severely flawed in determining guilt and innocence in emotionally charged cases. Where wealth, press coverage or aspiring politicians are brought into the mix, the rate of just verdicts must drop dramatically. Couple this with the fact that the death penalty is usually called for in cases where emotions run highest and you have a punishment that is applied in the situations where it is least likely to be deserved.

The Malvos of course are an exception to this idea. I'm not even certain why anyone bothers with a trial in this case. March them out back with a .22 and a shallow grave and let everyone get back to their lives.

by tomiwa at May 16, 2003 11:16 AM

Anna, Tomiwa, I don't know if you are religious or not, but it always baffles me when Christians say they are in favor of the death penalty. Aren't Christians s'posed to not kill people?

You can probably guess where I stand on the death penalty.

by Linz at May 16, 2003 12:21 PM

I sometimes attend church but I am not overly religious. But you raise an interesting point. Stranger still is the case my Mormon associate who favors the death penalty but just as staunchly opposes abortion on sancity o' life ground. To me you can't have it both ways.

by Anna at May 16, 2003 12:38 PM

Genesis 9:6 says: "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed."

I know it was probably just an off-hand remark, but religions, and non-religious entities like governments, see the difference between willingly taking an innocent life and punishing a murderer and if you can't, there is something seriously wrong with you. Do you honestly believe that someone taking your life deserves the same type of punishment as someone taking your car?

by mg at May 16, 2003 12:51 PM

That's a good question. I don't know what I would make the rules be in Lindsay Land. Innocent civilians died by the actions of our soldiers. Should our soldiers get the death penalty? Of course not. They had Permission.

I don't believe it should be ever be in any human's hands to decide who lives and dies. This gets violated every second on our planet. But I don't buy that medieval eye for an eye philosophy. Killing someone doesn't bring the person they killed back, it's not like getting a pawn to the end of the chessboard. It's not healing anything.

And I don't have to agree with you just because I can't tell you how to fix the system.

Curious: would you be willing to be the one who doles out the death penalties personally? If not, who has to do that? Also, what has more religious authority? The Ten Commandments or Genesis? Because there seems to be some internal conflict here.

by Linz at May 16, 2003 1:13 PM

I dont think they are in conflict. the Ten Com. say, "don't kill" and Genesis says "If you do, your going to get killed yourself."

Another question Linz, do you believe what it says in the Constitution about "unalienable rights?" Who decided those unalienable rights? I don't believe in godmyself, but I do believe these rights are inherent in all humans. No one has to decide them, they just are. All laws are based on the protection of those unalienable rights. Certainly, you'd agree that "life" is one of them. I'd say it's the most important. For me, the only appropriate response for someone taking away that right, outside of the boundaries of societally sanctioned actions, is to remove that person from society. Since Australia has long since been colonized, exile pretty much isn't an option. All that is left is death.

by mg at May 16, 2003 1:32 PM

Linz's point about actually doing the executing yourself is valid. That was the concept behind firing squads where only one member gets live ammo. Also, here's an interesting point: Females commit about 12% of murders. Yet states have executed but a handful of them. And when they do, as in the case of born again Karla Faye Tucker, all hell breaks loose. Why is that?

by Anna at May 16, 2003 1:38 PM

Australia's been colonized? I thought that place was underwater.

See, what you're saying is tacking on a p.s. to a commandment, which I don't think is allowed. But then, I don't believe in god either, so it doesn't matter. I just think, as you've demonstrated, people interpret religion to suit their purposes.

In a shocking plot twist, you are correct in that I agree with the concept of inalienable rights. But I don't ever agree that to kill someone is the appropriate response. And how come our society can sanction us killing someone in another society?

We just don't see eye to eye on this. I feel like we've had this debate before. Another debate where I asserted "...but I don't know how to fix things." I just don't. The end.

by Linz at May 16, 2003 1:48 PM

Anna- Cause women are prettier.

by Linz at May 16, 2003 1:50 PM

Linz you're amazing. What is even more amazing is that the great state of Georgia is home to both you with your rather progressive point of view and an anachronism like segregated proms. Guess it's a big state.

by Anna at May 16, 2003 2:59 PM

i cannot believe there is any actual law or precedent that would make it illegal for Chief Moose to write a book. Usually its just teh criminals who are forbidden from profiting from their experiences and even then in it is inregards to writing about the crime they committed. If I were Moose, I write the book, let them fire him and then sue them for a shitload. guy like that could make better money as a security consultant.

by eff at May 16, 2003 5:38 PM

The way I understand it is he can write all he wants so long as he steps down as chief. And no, he couldn't make the kind of money he does elswhere. He's police chief of Montgomery County MD, a sprawling area that is one the most affluent in the nation. I'm sure he makes a bundle and is close to vested retirement age.

by Anna at May 16, 2003 5:47 PM

Hmmm, as if no politician has ever made a dime writing an autobiography. Well if I were him I'd write it for free, and have all the profits go somewhere nice (educate inner city kids or something). The psychic Karma and notoriety would be as rewarding as the dough, and I could keep my job.

Re: the death penalty, does Genesis indicate who specifically gets to do the killing? i.e. "by man" could mean a lot of things. The death penalty is both sexist and racist in its application. It is also administered in the absence of un-equivocal proof of guilt (in other words - we make mistakes). I disagree that it is the only option, because we can effectively remove people from society without killing them. On a more scientific note, the death penalty tells me that we kill people because we really don't know what else to do with them. We declare that over the course of more than a decade, it is impossible for people to change (i.e. Karla Fay). We declare that they are incapable of being rehabilitated, re-programmed, or fixed. Imagine if every time your computer crashed, a firing squad came in and blew it full of holes. We assume people do not crash, and that if they do they are eternally evil and deserve to die. The brain is the most dynamic and complex object in the universe. We declare, in spite of overwhelming evidence, that it is not plastic, that it is incapable of change. We throw up our hands, "Fuck 'em, they killed, let them be killed. It's God's way" (By the way, for a good read try "A user's guide to the brain", by John Ratey)

by chris at May 16, 2003 7:05 PM

What about prison is guaranteed to rehabilitate the criminal, though? Certainly some people come out of prison regretting their crimes, but what we currently do is put people of already dubious morality in with other angry, probably violent people of the same, in an environment of dehumanization, drugs, gangs, racial tension, and occasional rioting, and expect them to come out better people? This idea that prison time is somehow instructional to the soul is centuries-old and really needs to be re-examined.

by jean at May 16, 2003 7:48 PM

My understanding is that prison and rehabilitation have actually been separated, and in the minds of most legislators have nothing to do with each other. In other words, prison is no longer about rehabilitation. It's simply about punishment, and removal of the individual from society.

I imagine the state of rehabilitation science is very poor. It's easy to get money to build prisons, however, given the biases of our society, I would imagine it's very hard to get funding for something involving criminals that doesn't directly relate to their pubishment. Our biases towards mental health in general hold us back as well, and keeps us from seriously re-examining old paradigms. The major push into new territory will probably come from the physical science of studying brain structure and develpoment.

by chris at May 16, 2003 8:15 PM

When it comes down to kill of be killed, when my family and myself are involved, I’ll kill without a second thought. It’s the lesser of two evils. I know where my priorities are.

Once the crime has been committed and ‘defense mode’ is not necessary, I don’t think I could take life. Although, I do not think it unreasonable for the victim to seek revenge, some crimes are unforgivable.

I doubt I could be on a jury for a capital crime. There is no such thing as a ‘fair trial’. Illinois gave a good example of that when they found people on death row to be innocent and took everyone else off. How can you possibly juror a trial when you have no first-hand knowledge of the crime? How can you make a solid decision after listening to mounds of manipulative shit that spews from lawyers’ mouths? What if the jurors are imbeciles?

Using the ‘killing is wrong’ argument with war is a tad naïve. Yes, war sucks and is bad but what about the alternative? Which is the lesser evil? It’s a call I would never want to make. I know finding a mass grave with 15,000 bodies of men women and children would be enough to sway me in one direction. (Of course, all the media can do is bitch about the US not sealing off and protecting the ‘evidence’. Like they’re going to invade a country, remove it’s dictator and then tell the people that they can’t see the remains of their loved ones because they need the evidence to convict the people they just took out of power!)

by MrBlank at May 16, 2003 8:50 PM

The death penalty is only used in first degree murder cases - situations when someone purposefully took a life. There are defenses when someone "crashes." For example, we don't use the death penalty with manslaughter, or insanity. Capital punishment cases aren't "crashes." If we are going with the ridiculous metaphor that compares having Microsoft Word go down to someone being killed, the death penalty would only be used when your computer purposefully destroyed your information - not because of a virus, not because of the random glitches inherent in all MS products, but because it _wanted_ to destroy your information. And, since a person can't just be rebooted, you'd never be able to recreate that term paper you were writing, and you'd never be sure when your computer might crash again.

I think a lot of people who kill can be redeemed. People make awful, stupid mistakes every day. But when someone, weighing all the possibilities inherent in a situation willfully chooses to murder someone instead of any of those other options, I believe they are irredeemable.

by mg at May 16, 2003 8:59 PM

I think there are cases where killing is justified. I believe there are irredeemable people and people who commit crimes that are so heinous that society would never be comfortable with their continued life no matter where they were sequestered. I believe that war is sometimes necessary.

What I do not believe is that the decision as to when people die is usually in the right hands or that enough information is ever available to those who decide who dies or when a war is fought.

The Malvos are a pretty clear cut case. The evidence against them is solid and there is not much reasonable doubt as to their guilt. Their crime is suitably heinous. Kill them.

But most other cases are rarely so clear cut. Emotion, lawyers, plain stupidity cloud things up. Why should a man who shirked military duty be able to decide when a war is fought? He has proven that he doesn't understand what is involved and has no dedication to the cause. Similarly why should people who are unable to kill themselves give the order for someone else to be killed. Following Anna's lead on the Chinese style of execution, I propose we take it a step further. At the end of a trial where a person has been declared guilty and worthy of death, the jury should march that person out back and judge and jury should personally execute him. I guarantee a drop in the cases where the death penalty is applied.

by Tomiwa at May 16, 2003 10:37 PM

It's a metaphor: a complex system ceases to function in an acceptable way (computer crash), a complex system ceases to function in an acceptable way (murder). I'm not sure what's ridiculous about it. My point was that some capital cases are crashes. Others might be better seen as an infected system. Either way, the fact that someone chooses to commit murder, or wants to create mayhem, doesn't change the argument, unless I accept that want and choice are not parameters of a personality that can be manipulated and changed. Granted, many people think the hardware (in this case wetware) cannot be re-programmed, I'm not one of them. We kill people because we don't want to pay for the upgrade. The mind is a system that responds to input, and adjusts itself. I believe complex systems are capable of being manipulated. Irredeemability denotes a system that can't be hacked. Convincing me of a system that can't be hacked would be a tough sell.

by chris at May 17, 2003 3:20 AM

Taking your men vs. machines metaphor a step further, you should check out today's WashingtonPost.com. At least four murderers, two of whom killed their landlords like that old Eddie Murphy poem, have gotten off because they believe they've been sucked into The Matrix. Yes, the 1999 flick. Just wait till they see Reloaded.

by Anna at May 17, 2003 8:39 AM

MrBlank, I'm guessing you're referring to the time that exiting Illinois Governor George Ryan commuted the sentences of all death row inmates in his state. Commuting the sentences doesn't mean that the inmates were "found... to be innocent." According to Law.com, "commutation" is "the act of reducing a criminal sentence resulting from a criminal conviction.... This is not the same as a pardon, which wipes out the conviction or the actual or potential charge.... Commutation implies the penalty was excessive or there has been rehabilitation, reform or other circumstances." As I recall, those death row inmates are now serving life sentences.

by jean at May 17, 2003 6:16 PM

Chris..."Complex system ceases to function in an acceptable way..." Malvo is considered a complex system? Believe me, I bet I'm a better shot with an Ar-15 then Malvo could ever be, accurate to a tee at 100yrds. Especially if you used burst function. He should definitely be let loose in an open field, allowed to run all he wants while people randomly get one shot at him. Make sure Malvo doesn't know when it's coming, keep him shitting in his pants. Some blanks, some plastic bullets, etc. then the random distribution of real bullets.

by LOCKHEED at May 18, 2003 3:38 PM

THOU SHALT NOT KILL. What part of this commandment do we fail to understand?
When the government kills someone on our behalf, and we have raised no objection, we are as personally responsible for this death as if we had caused it ourselves. The government is nothing more than you and me.

As a resident of the D.C. suburbs, I consider myself to have been a victim of the "D.C. Snipers".
I frequent the gas station where the Manassas victim was killed, and my adult daughter lived right across the street. I can tell you we were SCARED. We changed the way we lived. My daughter moved. My son's school field trips were cancelled. People lived cautiously. It was a bad thing.

I would be a terrible juror. there is no doubt in my mind that these two people are responsible for these crimes. Of course, they are entitled to their day (months?) in court, and are to be considered innocent until proven guilty. That's the way our government (WE) works. We are fair and decent people. RIGHT?

The problem is, that sometimes we are wrong. We mean well, but we are human. We have emotions and laws that can cause us to make faulty choices. Sometimes we make mistakes. Is it ever O.K. for us to make the choice to have someone executed? Is it O.K. to decide to release someone whom we know to be a danger to society on a technicality?

I think the majority of decent people have a problem with either of these options. Unfotunately, they also seem to have a problem with my proposal.

My suggestion is a return to what the ACLU considers to be CRUEL and UNUSUAL PUNISHMENT. Surely, prisoners can be expected to earn their keep. Room, board, DSL internet service, all the amenities that you and I have to work for, and some that the average law-abiding citizen can't afford (that DSL thing sticks in my craw) could be passed on to the prisoner. If we (you know, the government, you and me) turn out to have been wrong, well, we do our best to make restitution.

But you can never make restitution for dead.

Statisticians can tell you that it costs far more to bring

by nancy at May 18, 2003 7:18 PM

sorry 'bout the boo-boo. I meant to end before that last unfinished sentence. But since I didn"t, the point I DIDN'T mean to get into is that it costs way more to execute someone than to put them away forever. If that's what you care about, email me & I will get you the statistics. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

by nancy at May 18, 2003 11:35 PM

What I think is ridiculous is making a comparison between a computer and a person, and a computer crashing and a person being murdered. I love my computer, and if it crashed and died for good, I'd probably be pretty upset. But, I'd be able to get a new computer. If my mom died, I'm not going to be able to head out to Circuit City and buy a new one. And as I said above, I believe in the death penalty only in cases where there are no extenuating circumstances you refer to as "crashing." Capital punishment is not used in instances of insanity (temporary or otherwise), self-defense, accident, etc. If someone takes a life without being able to point to any such "crash" then there can be no possible rehabilitation. There is a reason why, for example, sex offenders must register whenever they move - they are much more likely to commit the same crime again. By definition, someone who murders without a "crash" is much more likely to kill again because obsiously life doesn't mean very much to them. There is no rehabilitation in such a case.

by mg at May 19, 2003 11:13 AM

Ok forget the computer, the analogy is getting in the way at this point. The common element - the main point I was trying to make - is that the brain is a complex system, capable of existing in aberrant states. If it's ridiculous to say that, then we can agree to disagree. Now to continue, some of those states we accept as obviously aberrant - such as accute insanity, while others are thought of as evil (a sane person commiting murder) - though I would call those too aberrant states. As a society we place a lot of value towards solving aberrant states in certain systems, such as solving any instance of cancer. Yet the brain, the single most complex object in the universe, we dismiss as unfixable. You and I may disagree on the plasticity of human nature. A network composed of 100 billion objects, each sharing between 1 and 1000 connections (i.e. your brain) is capable of an unfathomable number of states, and if we survey human experience, we find people are capable of almost anything we can imagine. As a society "There is no rehabilitation in such a case" is a matter of decree, not of nature (IMO).

by chris at May 19, 2003 1:44 PM

I agree, some people who murder do so because of aberrant brain functions. But are you saying that everyone who murders is the victim of some aberrant brain function? What about people who don't murder, or comit any crimes - do their brains function in a certain way, outside of their control, or is it learned morality that causes them to stay within the acceptable boundaries of society? If you are arguing against self determination, then I guess we really don't need to discuss this anymore, because I'll never agree with you. But, if you can agree that, outside of abherrent brain function, it is still possible for someone to murder, then how do you punish that person? Or, if you believe that all ill behavior can be traced back to misfunctioning brains, then how do we justify putting _anyone_ in jail?

by mg at May 19, 2003 2:40 PM

"are you saying that everyone who murders is the victim of some aberrant brain function?" Yes(!). We have declared so by law. Murder is aberrant behavior. Behavior is the result of brain function. (I can see the ad campaign: "Use a brain, go to jail.")
I'm not arguing against self-determination, I'm saying there are parameters and a mechanism by which self-determination occurs. Therefore
it's a malleable process. If so, then why do we put people to death rather than change them? Either because we want to, or because we don't know how to change them (of course there are those for whom "we don't know how" = "can't"). Thus my stab at the undervalued state of brain research. Some ignore the debate altogether, and choose to treat behavior as static and throw it into two bins, good and evil. From them I would want to know, what part of control does not fall under brain function? What part of self determination does not fall under brain function? (Remember I'm treating brain function as the output of a complex network.)

As for putting people in jail, it's the simplest mechanism that serves the broadest purpose.
Some people slap their kids, other people accomplish the same end through other means.

by chris at May 19, 2003 4:24 PM

I think there is a big difference between saying that the workings of a system is faulty, and thus makes faulty decisions, and a system that works okay and purposefully chooses to make decisions that are not socially acceptable. In the first situation, you've got the various affirmative defenses, and the latter results in capital crimes. I don't think it is fair to say that anyone who does something socially unacceptable is automatically the victim of aberrant brain function - I personally have to believe that there are situations when people with fully functioning brains choose to make the wrong decisions, otherwise what value is there in making the "right" decisions? Basically I don't agree with you because if there is no "evil" then there is no "good" and I don't want to live in a world where there isn't good.

And, even if I were to agree with you, I still would think the death penalty is currently the only situation in such cases and it is the same reason why I believe assisted suicide should be legal. Medical science is not at the level to treat these people, and in the case of assisted suicides it is in the best interest of the patient to end the suffering and in the case of murderers in the best interest of society to remove them from it. If murderous behavior is the result of aberrant brain function that we can not treat, then that person will remain a threat no matter what other measures are taken.

by mg at May 19, 2003 4:43 PM

I'm not saying there's no evil. I'm specifically not calling anyone a victim (though I'd say society is a victim of those we don't help). I'm trying to point out that there's a reason why people take action which can result in their own death, i.e. why they choose to kill people. Given my brain (fully functioning I hope), and the brain of a sane criminal, why do we make different decisions with the same wet ware? What is the quantifiable difference between the two systems? Do I believe something they don't? or vice versa? We all know that beliefs can be changed. Am I capable of horrendous crimes? Of course I am, though no one who knows me would admit to that. It is possible to shift a mind, but rather than invest in serious re-programming, or in trying to quantify the differences - we put people to death.
We could put them away instead of killing them, as is done in several other countries. Probability of escape too much to handle? Better lock a bunch of us law-abiding citizens up then because there's a much higher probability that people will die at the hands of otherwise law-abiding citizens about to become murderers, than at the hands of escaped death-row inmates.

by chris at May 19, 2003 6:45 PM

I just believe in justice being served, I also believe that a person serving time in prison would suffer more than a person who recieves the death penalty.

by danita at December 2, 2003 3:36 PM

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