In sniper shootings, prison, not death, is best outcome

Dan Rodricks

PERHAPS ALL the federal and local prosecutors who want to take the sniper case should have a televised drawing on Saturday night - something on the order of Mega Millions or Powerball - to see who gets to kill the guys. Until yesterday, when the feds stepped in, there seemed to be a considerable argument brewing over which county in which state should get to do the rest of us the big favor of prosecuting the sniper suspects and giving them a long dirt nap. So, settle it with a drawing.

Or maybe a televised debate would be TV worth watching. Each prosecutor would get to make his case and then a live studio audience, chosen at random, would get to vote.

Virginia prosecutors would argue that they have the best deal - the death penalty for the adult suspect and the juvenile alleged to be his accomplice.

The prosecutor in Montgomery County would argue that most of the killings occurred there. He'd have a strong case but for the fact the Maryland death penalty law has all these conditions that must be met, and it would be such a legal stretch to meet them. Plus, this is the state of Parris Glendening and Kathleen K. Townsend, and they support the death penalty moratorium - even though they say they support lethal injection - and that presents the question: Can these people be trusted?

The feds have a different deal to offer - an anti-extortion statute, which would apply because the sniper suspects allegedly tried to extract $10 million ransom in exchange for ending their shooting rampage. A conviction would subject the adult sniper suspect to the federal death penalty.

So there you have it - men in suits arguing that they each have a good deal to offer a vengeful public.

We should have expected a fair amount of bloodlust in this case, which is particularly sick and heinous, but the mad scramble to find the perfect jurisdiction for the sniper suspects' trials - the place most likely to put them to death - must have made even death-penalty supporters a little queasy. Even they understand some basic concepts of justice - "innocent until proven guilty" comes to mind - and they even might concede that we should know more about the men accused in this case before deciding what their punishment should be.

But what should really bother death-penalty proponents is this public posturing by prosecutors over who has jurisdiction and which is most likely to execute these high-profile suspects.

The posturing reveals something about the death penalty that galls its proponents - the idea that it's all about revenge, a state or nation being asked to answer blood with blood on behalf of the people most aggrieved, the surviving family members and friends of the victims of murder. Death-penalty proponents claim that capital punishment is not about revenge; they say it needs to be on the books, and used extensively, to deter crime.

It's a deterrent, they always say.

But if that were the case, why did the suspect sniper - assuming he was rational - take his sick mind, his rifle and his apparent accomplice to Virginia?

The fact that Virginia has the death penalty - and no prohibition against executing convicted murderers under 18 - didn't keep these killers from hunting for humans near Ashland and Falls Church, did it?

I am bringing this all up because I want people to think about it.

I hate these killers. We all do. I wish they had done the brave thing and turned the Bushmaster on themselves when they had the chance. But we're stuck with them, and the question of what to do with them.

Most of you have already decided.

I was tempted to call for their deaths, too.

But I can't seem to make exceptions in my opposition to the death penalty. I've tried. But each time I try, I run into the same problem - once you start making exceptions, you're forced to decide which crime is more heinous than another, or which life is more valuable than some other. You're forced to play God.

So I just oppose the death penalty, and I no longer vote for politicians who support it and use it to boost their standings in the polls.

I don't get into this subject much, but the sniper case forced me to review the reasons for my opposition.

I simply think answering death for death - violence with violence - gets us nowhere but further down the splintered ladder of civilization. State executions of our most detestable and violent killers contribute to the degradation of our culture. I believe that. I believe that, while man has the right to create society and to eliminate killers from that society, he does not have the right to play God and take a life.

That is what sick, twisted animals did to 10 innocent men and women in Maryland and Virginia.

I'd like to see them each in a solitary cell, tied to chairs, forced to listen to victim-impact statements for several hours a day. May they rot in prison.

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