Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The tipping point, part deux

Many of us who oppose the death penalty get -- shall we say -- some interesting mail. We're called a pretty broad (and often obscene) litany of names, and, it seems, there are always two constants. First, we're accused of standing up for violent murderers. And second, we're asked what if it were our loved one who was killed (never mind the fact that many of us have lost loved ones to violence).

Never mind. Sticks and stones.

But really. Some people from across the ocean may disagree with me on the point I am about to make, and some of my friends here who oppose life without parole may even disagree, but one truism exists. If we are to abolish the death penalty in the U.S., we will have to convince the U.S. public that we can be tough on crime and we can keep the public safe.

Yesterday we told you about the conservative Dallas Morning News, which reversed its 100-year editorial policy and called for abolition of the death penalty in Texas, which is, of course, the leading execution state.

The Dallas Morning News has published a follow-up editorial. With it, they are demonstrating how you can be anti-death penalty and tough on crime. Here's how it starts (if you want to read the whole thing, go here. If you want to read Sunday's historic editorial, simply scroll down to yesterday's entry or go here.)

Death No More: Life without parole should be new standard

He needs killing.

For too long, our state has abided by this bit of Texas folk wisdom. Those who would kill need killing.

Wealth, race and random luck play a role in determining whether a case ends in death. Politics and geography can mean the difference between life in prison or lethal injection.

State-sanctioned death, it seems, is arbitrary.

Some of the most infamous murderers of our time sit in prison while lesser offenders are sent to die.

The Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway, confessed to killing at least 48 women but struck a deal to spare his life.

Juries sentenced Terry Nichols, accessory to the Oklahoma City bombing, and Lee Boyd Malvo, the "D.C. sniper," to life in prison.

Eric Rudolph, who bombed an abortion clinic, and Dennis Rader, the BTK serial killer, accepted plea agreements to avoid death sentences.

Our justice system has developed a dual standard, alternately meting out the death penalty and life in prison in comparable cases. In fact, some who conspire to commit the same crime are punished quite differently. Consider the teenage trio convicted in the murder-for-hire of Fort Worth socialite Caren Koslow.

Stepdaughter Kristi Koslow masterminded the gruesome killing and recruited her boyfriend and an acquaintance to carry out her plan. She was sentenced to life in prison. Brian Salter agreed to testify against his girlfriend in exchange for a life sentence. Jeffrey Dillingham exercised his right to a fair trial and was sentenced to die. Mr. Dillingham sought clemency, claiming a disparity of punishment. His request was denied, and he was executed in 2000.

We need a consistent standard.

But as long as capital punishment remains an option, it will be viewed as the ultimate goal, and prosecutors will face pressure to meet that goal.

Justice demands a punishment that is fair yet revocable, one that provides a sense of finality while allowing for the fallibility of the system.

Life without parole meets that bar.

It's harsh. It's just. And it's final without being irreversible.

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