Jewish World Review August 12, 2003 / 14 Menachem-Av, 5763

Peter A. Brown

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Hypocrisy from anti-death-penalty crowd | I support the death penalty but have always believed its opponents were sincere in their argument that government should never commit murder. Especially those who have opined that it is barbaric to execute someone who commits a murder when he is younger than 18.

How, then, do you square the deafening silence from death-penalty opponents about Virginia making the man who was 17 when he was accused in the D.C. area snipings eligible for the death penalty?

Is it possible that those high-minded folks have decided that politics is more important than Lee Boyd Malvo's life?

It sure looks that way.

Fresh from former Illinois Gov. George Ryan's decision to commute the sentences of all 167 death row prisoners as he left office last year, one might expect they'd raise a howl about subjecting a minor to execution.

But they haven't even made a peep, apparently because they know doing so would undermine their overall goal of abolishing the death penalty. If they were to argue that Malvo should not be eligible for execution if convicted of charges in the three-week shooting spree, they'd not be taken seriously again by most Americans.

And, that's the key to understanding why, at least so far, this has not become a major issue.

The anti-death-penalty crowd has promoted Ryan's decision to commute those death sentences to life without parole. They have called it an important milestone in their fight to end capital punishment in the United States.

Maybe yes, but probably no.

Although capital punishment's public support slipped from the 75-plus percent between 1988 to 1995, it has rebounded from its 1996-2001 range in the mid-'60s back to three-in-four support, according to the Gallup Poll.

The then-17-year-old Malvo and 42-year-old John Allen Muhammad are charged in the shooting spree that killed 13 people and wounded five others in the Washington area in October, scaring the nation.

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Members of the anti-death-penalty crowd have been silent because they know this is the type of case that would make most people this side of the ACLU agree that scum who commit such crimes should die.

Yet, that's the point.

Their basic argument against the death penalty has been that it is wrong. They argue that a civilized society should not commit murder, that doing so even for the most heinous crimes is immoral.

Sure, they're happy to couch their opposition to capital punishment in concern about the integrity of the process when it suits their purposes. They like to allege that defendants' rights are abused or that minorities are more liable to be executed, when it fits their purposes.

But they often make the intellectually sloppy argument that an innocent person has been sent to death row when technical problems, rather than a determination that a convicted murderer in fact did not commit the crime, causes a verdict to be overturned.

They argue with even greater passion about the immorality of executing those who are under 18 when they murder, because whatever their crimes, they were too young to understand the implications of their actions.

Horse hockey.

The prosecution claims Malvo and Muhammad drilled a hole in the trunk of their car so they could shoot a rifle without being seen. If the charges are true, it's impossible to believe that Malvo didn't understand he was going to kill a lot of people. Throw in the report, according to prosecutors, that he laughed as he described one of the killings.

But at its core, the anti-death-penalty crowd will tell you that no matter the crime, it is a moral imperative that the state not take a life. Now, they are certainly free to make that argument, and the notion of moral clarity has a certain appeal.

But it's cases like this one that more than tarnish that argument.

If their morality can be compromised for political expediency, then why are capital-punishment opponents any different from those public officials, who the anti-death-penalty folks argue, sign death warrants in order to curry political favor?

Obviously, there is no difference. It's just that, having fought their way back to being taken seriously, they don't want to want to return to the political fringe. And that is why the anti-death folks are hypocrites. If it's a matter of conscience to stop executions, especially of teenage criminals, then why have they been so quiet in this case?

If then there are cases in which the death penalty is justified, such as this one, then they should stop cloaking their motives in such moral absolutes.

Take your choice.

But don't try to have it both ways.

Peter A. Brown is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Comment by clicking here.


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