It’s not easy being against the death penalty when it comes the case of John Allen Muhammad. When he and Lee Malvo were on the loose the fear of death around here felt very palpable. After all I live in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. These crimes weren’t happening hundreds of miles away. They were happening in what felt like my backyard. Thankfully no one in my family nor anyone I knew were one of his victims. But I remember clearly how I felt for the month or so when the two went on a sniper-shooting spree around Washington D.C.
How did we feel? We felt like one of the pheasants in Dick Cheney’s canned pheasant hunt. Like we were living in a war zone. It was unnerving and creepy to walk outside and realize there was a remote (but not insignificant) chance that in a minute you could go from healthy pedestrian to bleeding on the pavement and fighting for life. For weeks my daughter was not allowed outside of her school during school hours. Pumping gas became an act of courage. If you were foolish or macho you stood there, in the open, instead of discreetly crouching next to your car. We all felt the same way: Hey, it could have just as easily been me murdered down there at Loehmann’s Plaza in Falls Church.
Our feeling of relief when Muhammad and Malvo were caught at a rest stop outside of Frederick, Maryland was palpable. The community heaved a collective sigh of relief. We started laughing again. We opened our blinds and filled the house with natural light. Children could play outside instead of playing video games. Pumping gas became boring and annoying again. Many of us wished we could become vigilantes and go after Lee and Malvo. Oh how sweet it would have been to give them a taste of their own little horror show! There would have been no lack of volunteers to take pot shots at them. In fact there would have been riots to be the one lucky enough to do the deed.
We hates them, my precious.
It was no surprise to me that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft decided to try Muhammad and Malvo here in Virginia. In fact the majority of the murders occurred across the Potomac River in Maryland, so Marylanders should have had the first claim. But here in Virginia we have a certain reputation to uphold. Ashcroft knew we Virginians could deal death to Muhammad in near breakneck legal time. Texas may beat us in the sheer number of people put to death, but even Texas doesn’t come close to meeting our numbers for people put to death on a per capita basis. We love the death penalty here in Virginia! We don’t hang them in front of the county courthouse anymore, but we sure do our best to limit death penalty appeals. Those sentenced to death get an automatic and expedited review by the Virginia Supreme Court. More recently the state legislature allowed for DNA testing of evidence too. This was something they begrudged doing and only after it became embarrassingly clear that Virginia was very lax in that department. But even factoring in these minor delays it’s pretty unusual for killers sentenced in Virginia to not be pushing up the daisies two years later.
So it was no surprise at all that Muhammad received the death penalty. I was somewhat surprised that Malvo received a life in prison sentence. We’ve executed criminals for committing murder before age 18 in this state before. But the death penalty for Muhammad was a mere formality. He will likely miss his first scheduled execution date in October due to the usual appeals, but die he will. The only thing that would keep him alive beyond 2005 would be other states insisting on trying him too. These states though might as well save their money. The Commonwealth will put him to death as quickly as legally allowed.
And I won’t be shedding any tears for Muhammad the day he goes to his demise. Muhammad is one evil and messed up dude. I doubtless will feel safer knowing he’s not around.
So how could I be against the death penalty in general when I can’t work up the energy to feel much for Muhammad’s passing? Well there are lots of reasons. But to me it all comes down to one central issue: if killing someone against their will is murder, then executing someone is also murder. And if the state murders someone then the blood is in some sense also on my hands, because I live in a democracy.
Oh there are other arguments I could use. I could argue that a life spent in prison contemplating his crimes would be far more punishment for Muhammad than simply killing the guy. But that is just a cheesy rationalization. I could hope for rehabilitation for Muhammad. But I’d never feel safe if he got out of prison no matter how gloriously he found Jesus. I could convincingly argue that the death penalty does not deter others from committing murder, since our homicide rates show no correlation with executions. People who commit murder aren’t playing with a full deck in the first place. I could also argue, very correctly, that we’ve put to death innocent people before. The evidence in this case though leaves no room for reasonable doubt. Muhammad is a cold-blooded murderer and Malvo was his eager pupil. Muhammad is one sick and very messed up man.
It is so tempting in this case to make an exception. But I cannot do it and be true to myself. If murdering anyone is evil then murdering someone because they have murdered doesn’t make that murder any less a murder, or any less evil. It’s a shame America hasn’t joined the vast majority of the rest of the world and learned this simple but enlightened truth.