When Is An Execution Decent?

Recent Supreme Court cases tell us that whether the death penalty is cruel and unusual depends upon the nation's "evolving standards of decency." Here are a couple of questions regarding those evolving standards.

What of felony murder? The "felony murder" rule holds an offender responsible for a foreseeable death caused during the commission of a felony, even when there is no intent to kill. Suppose an arsonist burns down what he believes to be an unoccupied house, unknowingly killing someone inside the dwelling. That's felony murder. Should the death penalty be available when there's no intent to kill?

Jurors in California declined to impose the death penalty on Manuel Alvarez, who "parked his Jeep on train tracks and caused a Metrolink derailment" that killed eleven people. [more ...]

"The jurors who were interviewed made it pretty clear that while they felt he was doing something terrible to attract attention, it wasn't his desire to kill anybody on that train," [UCLA law professor Peter] Arenella said.

"And without that type of intent to kill, generally juries are going to be reluctant to impose the death penalty when you have the alternative of life imprisonment without any possibility of parole." ...

In explaining their sentencing decision after only about three hours of deliberations, the three male members of the jury said they likely would not have even convicted Alvarez on the 11 counts of first-degree murder in the eight-week trial if it had not been for the felony murder rule.

Santa Clara University law professor Ellen Kreitzberg adds:

"I think we should be asking whether or not prosecutors should be thinking more carefully or more thoughtfully about seeking the death penalty where they are not really making a showing of any intent to kill."

Perhaps the nation's evolving standards of decency include an aversion to killing people who lacked a specific intent to cause death.

The second question is whether a person who was a party to the crime of murder, an accessory or helper but not the actual killer, should be put to death. Mississippi says yes in the case of Dale Leo Bishop, who is sentenced to die tomorrow.

Bishop, 34, was sentenced to death in 2000 for the kidnapping and slaying of 22-year-old Marcus Gentry of Fulton. Gentry was beaten with an 18-ounce carpenter's framing hammer on a dirt logging road outside Saltillo on Dec. 10, 1998, after an argument. ...

Testimony identified Jessie Johnson as the one who repeatedly hit Gentry with the hammer. Johnson is now serving life without parole in the murder. Although Bishop held and kicked Gentry, not beat him, Bishop was sentenced to death.

If Bishop, who suffers from mental illness, receives a lethal injection on Wednesday, he would be only the eighth person put to death - and the first since 1996 - who did not directly kill the victim (not including contract killings) in the more than 1,100 executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

Eight executions out of 1,100 is evidence that our evolving standards find it indecent to kill a man who is not himself a killer.

An interesting question is whether Haley Barbour will commute Bishop's sentence.

Given Barbour's commutation of killer Michael David Graham's life sentence last week, it would seem hypocritical in the extreme for the governor to ignore Bishop's plight. A trusty at the Governor's Mansion, Graham, 54, has served 19 years of a life sentence for the 1989 murder of his ex-wife, Adrienne Klasky Graham.

Graham shot his ex-wife in the face with a 12-gauge shotgun as she sat in her car waiting for a traffic signal in Pascagoula. His ex-wife's father was across the street when the murder occurred and he saw the carnage. Graham was sentenced to life in prison.

If there is mercy in Barbour's heart for a killer like Graham who was definitely guilty of a cold-blooded, gruesome murder, then the governor shouldn't blink an eye in granting clemency to Bishop - who took part in a killing but didn't deliver the fatal blows.

Bishop didn't get a chance to serve as a domestic servant at the Governor's Mansion. Graham did. That's the apparent difference.

Bishop is to be executed but the actual killer isn't, and neither is Graham. The arbitrariness of the death penalty is another reason it should offend our sense of decency, no matter how far it has or hasn't evolved.

< Mismanagement at IHS | DNC Musical Guest Update >
  • The Online Magazine with Liberal coverage of crime-related political and injustice news

  • Contribute To TalkLeft

  • Display: Sort:
    Never. (none / 0) (#1)
    by OrangeFur on Tue Jul 22, 2008 at 05:51:56 PM EST
    I oppose the death penalty, period.

    I suppose a variation of the question is "When is something as morally bad as murder?" Without coming up with a systematic answer, my visceral instinct is that the guy who held the victim down while someone else murdered him is pretty much every bit as guilty as the murderer himself.

    As an aside, how great is it that in this election, even the Democratic candidate for president thinks the death penalty should be imposed not only when there was no intention to kill, but there was no killing at all.

    "evolving standards of decency." (none / 0) (#2)
    by pluege on Tue Jul 22, 2008 at 06:45:13 PM EST
    I would have thought it an oxymoron to consider "standards of decency" to be "evolving".

    Now let me see, where did I read about "Thou shalt not kill". I'm pretty sure it was in something written some time ago and thought to be pretty important. But, maybe I'm mistaken. After all, all them religious folk just love to kill and they're supposed to the moral standard bearers of decency  now ain't they.

    Well, (none / 0) (#4)
    by bocajeff on Tue Jul 22, 2008 at 07:45:12 PM EST
    The book you are alluding to also contains the death penalty. It is also widely interpreted as "though shalt not murder" as there is a difference between murder and killing - such as killing in self defense versus murdering an innocent person.

    A new murder (none / 0) (#3)
    by nulee on Tue Jul 22, 2008 at 06:58:32 PM EST
    - that is what I have come to think about the death penalty, a new murder, a separate crime than the conviction that came before it.  How can our society be committing murder?  That is why I am against it.

    Personally... (none / 0) (#5)
    by Jerrymcl89 on Tue Jul 22, 2008 at 07:53:36 PM EST
    ... I'm against the death penalty more for pragmatic reasons than moral ones. In cases where the guilt is indisputable and the crime especially heinous (say, Tim McVeigh or Charles Manson), I'm fine with it, but I'm also fine with life without parole. And considering how unevenly death sentences are applied, how likely it is that innocent people get sent to death row and sometimes executed, and how ineffective it seems to be as a deterrent (organized crime figures, who are the one class of criminals that I think might be deterred, seem to rarely be sent to death row), I think the country would be better off without it. It doesn't seem to really serve any cause except satisfying our bloodlust, and that is not a worthy cause.

    actually, the law beat you to it. (none / 0) (#6)
    by cpinva on Tue Jul 22, 2008 at 08:10:40 PM EST
    - that is what I have come to think about the death penalty, a new murder, a separate crime than the conviction that came before it.

    death by execution is deemed a homocide. justifiable homocide, but a homocide none the less.

    When Is An Execution Decent?

    never. no such animal exists, or can exist, regardless of how clean we make it look.

    "mental illness" (none / 0) (#7)
    by diogenes on Tue Jul 22, 2008 at 10:39:33 PM EST
    Why is the notion that Bishop suffers from an unspecified mental illness pertinent to anything?  Did the mental illness force him to hold someone who was being struck by a hammer (not a fist)?  Would he have continued to hold and kick the victim if a policeman were at his elbow?  If he's not a cold-blooded killer, commute the sentence on that ground alone.  The wielder of the hammer, on the other hand, is a different beast.
    The case of Graham proves that this idea of life sentences replacing the death penalty is a sham.  All the more reason to actually execute cold-blooded killers like Graham as soon as you can, before they scheme their way out. I wonder what happens to his next wife if she crosses him.  

    I'm not against the death penalty (none / 0) (#8)
    by Grace on Wed Jul 23, 2008 at 02:18:21 AM EST
    but I live in the community where the train wreck happened.  

    Basically, Alvarez parked on the tracks because he wanted to commit suicide.  He changed his mind.  He left his SUV on the tracks and the train hit it and derailed.  

    This was actually quite a bizarre accident since Metrolink trains hit cars, SUVs and trucks a lot of times and rarely derail.  I understand this particular train derailed because it was being pushed with the locomotive in the rear, as opposed to being pulled.  

    Anyway, how could he know so many people would die?  There was no way he could have even imagined that.  I think, if I were on the jury, I would have voted for leniency too.  I believe the death penalty is an option but only for extreme cases.  I know 11 people died -- and that raised this tiny LA suburb's murder rate to double digits (we have hardly any murders here -- we're one of the safest cities in the USA).  But since he couldn't have anticipated that anyone would die, how can he be held responsible for so many deaths?  

    If I had been on the jury and faced with the death penalty versus letting him go with no penalty (if those are the only two options) -- I would have let him go.  There is no way I could have voted for the death penalty in this particular case.  He didn't mean to kill anyone.  He turned himself right in.  It would be impossible for me to sentence him to death.

    Charles Manson deserved the death penalty.  So did Timothy McVeigh.  There are cases that come up where the death penalty is deserved.  They aren't the majority of cases though.      

    Commutation of sentences (none / 0) (#9)
    by RNKay on Wed Jul 23, 2008 at 10:10:05 AM EST
    I believe that David Leo Bishop deserves to have his sentence of execution commuted to a life sentence much more then to commute the life sentence of David Micheal Graham to allow him to walk the streets of Mississippi a free man.

    David Micheal Graham took the life of the mother of 2 young children, his very own 2 young sons.

    He killed her at a Pascagoula intersection on a street in close proximity to the business of her only protector, her father, who arrived at the scene of the crime to observe his daughter with half her face missing after being shot at close range with a 12 guage shotgun by the man whom she once loved and with whom she started a family.  

    Before murdering his ex-wife of 3 years, Adrienne Klasky, he turned this loving mother's life into a world of fear and terror (Talk about foreign terrorism! What about homegrown terror?!?) by stalking her and repeatedly telling her of his murderous intentions, which is why she and her children were living with her parents & why she sought protection from the local police who egregiously ignored her plea for help.

    David Micheal Graham deserves the forgiveness of our Lord.

    He does not deserve the forgiveness of the people of this state.  

    The crime he committed not only took the life of Adrienne Klasky but it did irrepairable harm to his own children.
    A more heinous crime one cannot imagine.

    He should be kept in prison until he dies.

    It is more compassion then he showed the mother of his children, her parents, or her family members who love her and miss her very presence on God's green earth.

    David Leo Bishop may not have wielded the murder weapon against Marcus Gentry but Johnson, the alleged killer, might not have been able to beat the victim to death with a claw hammer had he not been an active participant.

    I do not, however, believe that the murderer should recieve a life sentence while a person who was an accomplice to the murder is put to death.
    If Justice is to be meted our fairly, they should both be put to death or both given life sentences.

    It just goes to show the inconsistencies in our justice system and how the justice system is indeed "arbitrary and capricious".

    This is the very reason that the "death sentence" is licentious not to mention venal.

    English Law (none / 0) (#10)
    by Turbulent Confusion on Wed Jul 23, 2008 at 11:58:48 AM EST
    Does the UK have a death penalty?  For some odd reason, I do not think so, but of course I might be wrong.  And yet, has anyone ever been there?  Wonderful place, England..  I almost thought about dying in Scotland once, just so I wouldn't have to leave..  and Ireland..  who wouldn't want to live there?

    I guess what I am alluding to is, if a society of people can live and still be open to non-capitol punishments for it's extreme law breakers, then why can't we?

    Dale Leo Bishop executed (none / 0) (#11)
    by RNKay on Wed Jul 23, 2008 at 10:24:29 PM EST
    He was pronounced dead on July 23,2008 @ 6:14pm.

    Intersting Website (none / 0) (#12)
    by RNKay on Wed Jul 23, 2008 at 10:31:12 PM EST
    Quite an interesting website!

    It has an article from the Clarion Ledger, the local Jackson newspaper in Mississippi.

    I support the DP for murderers. (none / 0) (#13)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Wed Jul 23, 2008 at 10:44:50 PM EST
    Recently TL has been posting on the issue of non-murderers receiving the DP, an issue I was not aware of previously, and thus far I side with TL on that issue.

    There may well be some particular cases in which a non-murderer deserves the DP, but I have not been made aware of them.