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The Rush To Execute The Washington Snipers

by Stephanie Gibson

John Ashcroft, Death Penalty Zealot
When Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that the sniper suspects -- John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo -- would be tried first in Virginia, we all knew what he meant.

He said he wanted to have "the best law, the best facts and the best range of available penalties." It's that last one that Mr. Ashcroft focused on. And he's not alone.

The instant Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo were taken into custody, talk on the airwaves turned from the fear people felt during the reign of the alleged snipers to how best to kill them.

You would think that "the ultimate sanction" is the only one available. But it's not. Life in prison can both punish and keep accused killers from killing again.

Virginia has far broader death penalty statutes than Maryland or the federal government. In Maryland, it was possible that the snipers may not have been eligible for the death penalty. And in Maryland and under federal law, Mr. Malvo could not be executed if he were convicted because he was not 18 when he allegedly committed his crimes.

Eighteen is when someone is considered responsible for his own actions. Eighteen is when Americans are permitted to vote. Eighteen is when people can join the military without parental permission. Even though children under 18 can act like adults, the social contract is clear in saying they are not adults.

If children are committing crimes, accepted wisdom says we should help them, not execute them.

Shouldn't we be embarrassed over trying to figure out, almost desperately, how we can execute this 17-year-old who allegedly threatened to execute other children? Isn't it unseemly for prosecutors to be falling over themselves to see who can make sure the alleged snipers get a lethal injection? Will there be a trial? Or will we go completely through the looking glass? To paraphrase the Queen of Hearts, first the sentence, then the trial. Off with their heads, indeed.

Executing Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Malvo won't make us safer. It won't explain how this happened or help us figure out how to stop it from happening again.

Adding serial killing to the list of death-eligible crimes in Maryland or lowering the age at which people are eligible for the death penalty also won't make the streets safer. Capital punishment only gives politicians a way to appear tough on crime and addresses a deep lust for revenge. Revenge is not the purpose of justice.

The family members of murder victims do not always want the death penalty. Groups such as Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation are made up of people who have lost family members to violence and still oppose capital punishment. But often those opposing the death penalty are made to feel -- by the media and the prosecutor's offices -- as though they didn't really love their family members. The assumption, of course, is that if you love someone you would want to see his or her killer executed.

Some of the family members of the sniper victims have expressed similar positions. But Mr. Ashcroft has already signaled what he wants by moving the first trials to Virginia -- the state with the second-highest number of executions in the United States after Texas. He'd like the heads of both men on a plate. Is this what we want to be showing our children?

Stephanie B. Gibson, an associate professor at the University of Baltimore, is a board member of the Maryland Coalition Against State Executions

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Albion Monitor November 15 2002 (

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