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Murderers Have No Right to be Free

(originally published in "The Richmond Republican", Vol. 2, No. 1, Winter, 1993-1994)

Dec 15, 1993

The news is filled these days with horrendous murders. From Polly Klaas to the 2-year old English boy, James Bulger, and to other more recent cases, the question surfaces again and again, "When will it ever end?"

One of the most disturbing facts about many murder cases is that the perpetrator is often a repeat offender. Why are they repeat offenders? The Manhatten Institute reported that the average prison term of murderers released in 1992 was only 5.9 years. This country is paroling murderers after only 6 years. To put it simply, murderers that are paroled have the opportunity to kill again.

How can our society prosper if members of our families are in danger of being murdered? For the sake of our families and each other, we should raise our voices and loudly call for an end to parole for violent crimes.

Let's look at murder and parole from a common sense point of view. Stripped of all excuses and justifications, murder occurs when one individual willfully kills another person who has posed no physical threat to the killer. Webster's Dictionary uses the term "malice aforethought" in its definition of murder. Based upon this simple premise, accidents and self-defense are not murder.

Our society has seen so many killings that murder has lost some of its emotional impact. Over time, our response has become complicated and diluted. Isn't it better to go back to the basics? A murder by any other name is still murder. Society's reaction should be quite straightforward. There are only two basic issues to deal with. They are the protection of society and the rehabilitation of the murderer.

First, and absolutely foremost, is the protection of society. The person who murdered the victim must never murder again. The murderer committed the crime once. This means that he is capable of committing murder again. He may protest that he has changed. We may hope that he has repented for his crime, and is now a changed man. Can we truly say, though, with 100% confidence, that the murderer will not kill again? Before he killed the first time, he had not killed. Still, with no record of murder, he violently took a life.

The two traditional methods used to prevent a murderer from killing again are permanent, life-long incarceration, and the death sentence. Which is preferable?

A life sentence is, of course, much better for the murderer. It provides the prisoner with an opportunity to repent and change before he dies of old age. During that time, in prison, he may actually become a different person internally. It is certainly better to give a person every possible chance of self-improvement. This makes sense when viewed in the context of spiritual redemption or the repayment of a debt to society.

In extreme cases, a murderer may be so dangerous or monstrous as to warrant the death penalty. If the murderer poses a threat to people in or out of prison, or has committed crimes that are unusually heinous, then the death sentence is appropriate. This is especially true when we consider that some criminals have ordered killings from within their prison cells. In those cases, the death penalty is warranted, to prevent additional murders.

If the death sentence must be imposed, shouldn't it be conducted in a painless and humane fashion? The electric chair is barbaric, and should be replaced with a painless injection that quietly puts the prisoner to sleep. Using a cruel or unusual method of execution is not justified by saying that it acts as an additional deterrent to other criminals.

A life sentence without parole revolves around one simple question. Will the murderer kill again? This is a question of risk management. Beyond the opinions of countless experts lies the possibility that yes, the murderer will kill again. Because of this, the right of the murderer to be free pales in comparison to the rights of citizens to be alive. The calculation of risk must be weighted in favor of a citizen's right to live, and to not be murdered. Even a 1% risk makes parole unacceptable.

Who has the right to ignore the risk that murderers pose to the lives of the citizens in our society? How can the right of a murderer to be free override a citizen's right to be alive? This common sense view cuts through the kind of upside-down compassion that would say, "The murderer had a bad childhood. We have to be lenient."

It is true, murderers must be rehabilitated. As a society, we should be compassionate, understanding, and forgiving. Murderers were children once. Their mothers often love them, even to the last. Certainly, from many religious viewpoints, everyone can be redeemed. Even murderers.

The primary issue is not one of society forgiving a murderer. It is also not an issue of punishment for crimes committed. Think of the two 11-year-old boys who killed the 2-year-old, James Bulger. The judge sentenced them to "indefinite detention." They can't be released until the British Home Secretary believes they no longer pose a danger to the public.

Viewed as punishment, that sentence may seem too harsh for 11-year-old children. Spending the rest of their life in prison (if it comes to that) is extreme and painful. In all fairness, though, what about the remainder of the 2-year-old's life? It has been cut short. How fair is that? After all, who murdered whom?

If our focus is on punishment and rehabilitation, then we might be inclined to forgive, pass a light sentence, and then parole a murderer. Although our motivation would be altruistic, our efforts to rehabilitate murderers must never cloud the fact that the lives of our citizens come first.

Based upon this viewpoint, it can be concluded that the only acceptable response to all types of murder is life imprisonment without parole. Period. No parole. No pleading. No excuses. It may be possible to feel sorry for the murderer. Let's be compassionate. Let's attempt to rehabilitate him. Let's ask him to repent, and do good works in prison. Let's help him learn and grow. But let us never let him out. Thus, we can be sure that he will never kill again.

Is this too harsh? We must remember that murder is in a class by itself. It's not robbery or forgery or white collar crime. It's murder. Someone died unjustly. We must, as a society, draw a line in the sand, and say to all potential murderers, "We won't tolerate it. If you murder someone, you'll get life in prison or the death sentence. We'll melt the key. Don't even think about it."

What effect will this strong attitude have on murder? Will it prevent murders? It will certainly prevent previous murderers from repeating their crimes. It will also send a clear message to other criminals, "Murder is unacceptable."

Going beyond this basic protective response, we must make a serious effort to eliminate murder at its root, before it happens. Since every murderer was once a child, we must focus our efforts on the revival and strengthening of the family, as well as the support of educational programs that teach unselfish ethics.

The process by which a child becomes a hardened killer is gradual and incremental, and begins with parents failing to teach children that they should never hurt others. It begins when children are not loved enough. It can be counteracted. That is our true challenge as a society.

Until then, let us make sure that murderers never repeat their crimes.

(Comments are moderated and must be approved.)
Peter Falkenberg Brown
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