Forgo the Monster Test for Justice (1998)

Daily the sordid spectacle unfolds at its soap opera worst: Will it be suicide by underwear? Are attorneys to be banished lest they expose paranoid beliefs and delusional ramblings? Can the betrayed and suffering family maintain? And now, what will the shrink think?

Is this decent? Is this necessary? Is this justice? In a word, no.

The Justice Department's decision in December to refuse the offer of alleged Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life in prison without parole had only four things wrong with it. It was stupid, inhumane, unnecessary and sentenced us all to this multimillion-dollar sideshow that will further dehumanize America while giving a sick man the opportunity to spread his demented word to a wondering world.

One stands awe-struck at the level of legal genius capable of reaching such a decision. Imagine the debate: If not this bastard, who? If not now, when? Use it or lose it! We've got to be tough on crime! The politics cut only one way--you kill.

It's the same sad story, the Monster Test. Demonize and destroy. McVeigh yes, Nichols no. George Bush the Lesser wrestles with Karla Faye Tucker's Christianity in the same way presidential candidate Bill Clinton did Rickey Ray Rector's brain-damaged, howling soul. But they mustn't be wimps. What choice do they have?

Well, here's one. In California alone, more than 1,850 convicted murderers have received life without parole since 1977. Not one has been released. In most California counties, the total cost to the state of a capital trial is now more than $2 million--and that's for a noncelebrity defendant--while a noncapital trial is a little more than $600,000. The added expense of a capital case comes from having to hold two trials (one to establish guilt or innocence, the other the so-called penalty phase); a more extensive process to find a "death qualified" jury; more motions, more emotions, more lawyers, more investigators and expert testimony, and then the automatic, constitutionally mandated appeals.

Leadership, that longed-for but rarely seen commodity, would have recognized that both justice and considerations of public safety would be served by the acceptance of Kaczynski's offer. A quick court appearance to enter a guilty plea and the subsequent incarceration of this obviously deranged hermit in a place where he can do no further harm during the rest of his life would have been in the best interests of all involved. And it would then have been, for all intents and purposes, over.

Today's juries are fortunate to have the option of giving a life sentence without parole. At least some are. Juries in Texas, which set a record for killing 37 prisoners last year, do not and are thus forced to choose between death and the prospect of eventually letting murderers loose. But Kaczynski's prosecutors had the option, and by rejecting his plea, officials have guaranteed a spectacle of human misery, grotesque expense and mind-numbing confusion as our government once again gropes for a rationale to do further violence--not in the interests of justice but in the pursuit of politics.

Political cowardice--a term teetering precariously on the brink of redundancy--prevails. The powers-that-be have so long claimed that the American public wants people to be killed in its name that they find themselves trapped in a vise of their own creation. In fact, as reactions to the Oklahoma City bombing trials and the prospect of women in the execution chambers show, a profound ambivalence about capital punishment is now loose in the land. In a California Field Poll on the subject, fully two-thirds of the respondents said they preferred a life sentence without parole to the death penalty if the murderer were also required to work in prison and give part of the money earned to the families of the victims. Similar responses have been given in other states.

In the Unabomber case, the people were given that choice--by Ted Kaczynski. But federal prosecutors snatched it away. In doing so, they have shown themselves to be just as confused as Kaczynski, but without the benefit of having ideas implanted in their minds via satellite.

Now we hear that the government is rethinking the plea. Put the poor man away, and let's get on with the struggle for real justice in our society.

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