Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Another Gratuitous Execution

Tonight the state of Virginia executed John Allen Muhammad, who was convicted of the 2002 DC-area sniper shootings that left 10 people dead. There is little about this case to indicate that Muhammad's execution was much more unjust than others. But a few unsettling circumstances remind us that the death penalty is indeed an inexact science. And I'm left wondering, "Why is America still executing people?"

Mr. Muhammad maintained his innocence until he was killed tonight, as more than 20 relatives of victims watched through the glass. One of his lawyers claimed--even as late as today, once all appeals had been exhausted--that Muhammad was mentally ill. His second ex-wife said that Muhammad's personality had changed after serving in the Gulf War. And she said he never received counseling after returning from the war.

The state seems like it was in a hurry to execute Muhammad. As the Supreme Court declined to hear Muhammad's appeal, Justices Stevens, Ginsberg, and Sotomayor wrote that the judicial process had been rushed because Virginia had scheduled the execution for Tuesday. And Muhammad's lawyers complained that they had not been given enough time to file his final appeal.

The final chance for clemency lay in the hands of Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, who is also chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Kaine has long claimed to be "personally" against the death penalty but has overseen 11 execution as governor. When he was campaigning for governor in 2005, Kaine's Republican opponent tried to make Kaine's anti-death penalty stance the central issue of the campaign. To win, Kaine had to assure voters that he would uphold Virginia's death penalty laws even though they violated his personal and religious (he's Catholic) beliefs. This week, Kaine must certainly have known that news of the chairman of the DNC granting clemency to one of the country's most notorious killers would have brought unwelcome attention at a time when the party has big things on its plate. I have no particular beef with Tim Kaine, but his position in all this illustrates the (at best) arbitrary and (at worst) political factors that determine who gets executed when.

But the simpler and more profound point is this. There was no need to kill John Allen Muhammad tonight. They could have locked him up and thrown away the key, as they did with his child accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo. He would have been no danger to anyone, just as he's been no danger since he was apprehended in 2002. Instead, for reasons that I know but don't understand, Virginia decided to march Muhammad out in front of a small crowd to kill him seven years after his crimes.

I think that when America finally bans the death penalty, it won't be so much a result of arguments about deterrence and cost and so on. It will be because we grow to see executing criminals as a clumsy and barbaric institution.

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