Would it be fairer to reserve death penalty for serial killers?

Posted: November 13, 2003

On Nov. 5, Washington state prosecutors cut a deal with Gary Ridgway. He admitted to murdering at least 48 women, making him the worst serial killer in U.S. history - and he was spared the death penalty.

On the same day, Virginia prosecutors pulled out all stops to get the death penalty for accused D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad. Muhammad's alleged crimes are heinous, repulsive, caused much suffering, and spread terror through several states. Technically, however, he is being tried for only one murder. The case against him is mostly circumstantial, and there is much dispute over whether it was Muhammad or his teenage sidekick, Lee Boyd Malvo, who was the actual triggerman. If Muhammad is convicted - and the odds are he will be - Virginia will put him on the fast track to the death chamber. Muhammad wouldn't be the first or only person to face execution for the killing of a single victim, and Ridgway would certainly not be the first serial killer not to be executed.

Uneasy questions arise. Is a killer that kills many times more deserving of the death penalty than one who kills only once? By that standard, Ridgway and all serial killers should be put to death. Yet, of the nearly 60 people executed this year, only a handful were put to death for killing more than one person.

Then there's the question of whether certain types of killers are less likely to get the death penalty than others. The list of multiple murderers who have evaded the death penalty is endless. It includes Mafia hit men, wealthy celebrities, businessmen, and athletes. There are 20,000-plus homicides in America yearly. Only a few hundred of those convicted of murder get the death penalty. If the killer is black or Latino and the victim is white, or middle-class, or well-educated, or has a rotten attorney, and the murder is committed anywhere in the South, the likelihood is much greater that the convicted killer will face execution.

In any case, the U.S. Supreme Court long ago rendered the debate over the proportionality of capital punishment moot. In 1984, the court ruled that the Constitution does not require the imposition of sentences commensurate with the crime. The court did urge states to include proportionality standards in their death penalty laws to prevent excessive or disproportionate sentencing.

Most states with the death penalty have enacted standards to help judges and juries determine whether a death sentence is appropriate. Among the "mitigating circumstances" they are asked to consider are age; mental capacity; and sexual, drug, and alcohol abuse. Many studies have found that a significant number of the more than 3,000 prisoners that sit on America's death rows have either been beaten, brutalized, sexually assaulted, are mentally retarded or subliterate.

The day before Ridgway copped his plea, Georgia executed a mentally ill killer, and two days after Ridgway's plea, North Carolina executed another, and that state has scheduled a December execution for a man with mental retardation. In each case, the condemned men were convicted of one murder.

Death penalty opponents hope that Ridgway's case will cause more people to question the fairness of the death penalty. Wishful thinking. A CNN poll taken immediately after his plea bargain found that the overwhelming majority of respondents were appalled at the deal and said that he deserved and should have gotten death. This could increase public clamor for more and speedier executions.

America's worst serial murderer will end his life in prison. But many others who killed far fewer persons will not. This is yet another absurdity of the death penalty. It can never be applied fairly. If it was in effect abolished for Ridgway, it should be abolished for all.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black."

Contact Earl Ofari Hutchinson at EHutchi344@aol.com.

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