Guest Columnist

The condemned can do good, if we don't kill them

Protesters against the death penalty gather in Terre Haute, Ind., Friday, July 17, 2020. Dustin Honken, an Iowa meth kin
Protesters against the death penalty gather in Terre Haute, Ind., Friday, July 17, 2020. Dustin Honken, an Iowa meth kingpin who kidnapped and killed five people, including two young girls, to thwart his prosecution for drug trafficking in 1993 is set to become the third federal inmate to be executed this week. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

The holiday season finds President Donald Trump and his attorney general, William Barr, rushing to execute several people guilty of heinous crimes committed long ago.

It troubles me because I’m sending Christmas greetings to two California men guilty of committing heinous crimes long ago.

OK, there are differences. The Trump/Barr-targeted condemned are the last of a group lined up for death following a 17-year halt to federal executions. Their crimes, accurately called “horrific,” leave them with few sympathizers.

My California connections are gang dropouts who came to see their past deeds as monstrous and sickening. I’ll call them Justin and Rene because those are their names. (The former is of Irish descent, the latter Mexican American.) Once candidates for death row, they turned their lives around, became police allies and are spending the rest of their days being as productive as possible. Lots of people root for them, including me. My role is volunteer writing coach. While loathing every act in their gang shot-calling past, I hope to help them steer at-risk youngsters away from the gang life.

So, drastically different scenes: Despair and doom at the federal death house outside wintry Terre Haute, Ind. A lease on life at Ironwood State Prison outside sunny Blythe, Calif. My point in comparing those federally condemned with the state-spared but still behind bars? Any murderer not hopelessly demented (shielded from execution anyway) could end up doing something helpful to humanity.

But not if killed.

Justin, 39, and Rene, 58, wouldn’t have been killed anyway. California has executed no one the last 15 years. The most common cause of death on death row there is old age. And Gov. Gavin Newsom has reprieved the state’s 737 condemned, declaring them lifers without parole.

Donald Trump would issue no such order. His penchant for capital punishment is well known. In 1989, he demanded death for five Black and Latino teenagers wrongly convicted of the brutal rape of a jogger in Central Park. Last month he authorized use of barbaric old execution methods — shooting, gassing, hanging, electrocution — as substitutes if chemicals for the “more humane” lethal injections become unavailable.

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So what’s driving the Trump kill-by-Jan. 20 push, apart from concern that President-elect Joe Biden will push for the death penalty’s demise nationwide?

Trump and Barr say the executions are necessary for giving murder victims’ loved ones closure.

Closure? It’s the first argument death penalty advocates give, as if waiting 15 or 20 years to see a murderer die somehow provides peace of mind.

Cheaper than lifelong housing and feeding convicted murderers? Hardly. The last four decades have seen California taxpayers spend $4 billion (including legal fees) preparing accused people for death row. Nearly all defendants are indigent.

The “worst of the worst” deserve to die? Well, we the citizens don’t deserve to be their killers. The death penalty credo seems to be, “It’s wrong to kill people so we kill people for doing it.”

Through all that — economic vibrations chiming with the moral — I hear American capital punishment’s death knell.

The Supreme Court could end it — a future mix of justices, probably not Trump’s current designer panel. Unconstitutional “cruel and unusual punishment” was the reason given for the 1970s death penalty suspension. Specifically, states were imposing it in “arbitrary and capricious way,” especially regarding race. That standard would certainly hold today.

States doing away with capital punishment have gotten along fine. Iowa abolished it in 1965, Wisconsin in 1853. Michigan has never had it. Most of the 28 states with “the ultimate penalty” still on the books scarcely ever use it. Those that do have suspended executions during the pandemic, leaving us to shudder at the gathering of 200 witnesses in close quarters at federal executions.

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All other Western democracies have abolished capital punishment, leaving the United States in company such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Iran and Egypt.

Death penalty advocates keep on insisting those guilty of heinous crimes deserve hell on earth. But that’s what life without parole is — unless prisoners make a bid for redemption, as gangsters-turned-reformers Justin and Rene did long ago.

Attorney Bryan Stevenson, heroic Black defender of prisoners wrongly accused or harshly treated in the South, says, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Let’s keep that in mind during this Season of Joy.

Writer-editor Jerry Elsea is retired after 40 years at The Gazette.

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