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Jewish World Review June 19, 2000 /16 Sivan, 5760

Don Feder

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Advertisements for death penalty walking -- ERNEST BURGESON probably remembers his son Jason's first steps, the day he learned to ride a bicycle and the day he left for college.

Those memories took on a bittersweet quality after Jason's murder at 2 a.m. on a deserted golf course, as the 20-year-old pleaded for his life.

Jason was killed for kicks. Five young men, who could charitably be described as the scum of the earth, are under arrest for that crime and the murder of Jason's companion, Amy Shute. According to court documents, the defendant who allegedly pulled the trigger has confessed.

This is what the capital punishment debate is really about -- not DNA evidence, not sentences reversed on appeal, not the possibility of error in a criminal justice system no one ever imagined to be perfect.

This is what it comes down to -- a grieving father, a family robbed of its future, parents who will never again see that special smiling face or feel the embrace of loving arms because some teen-age psychos wanted to see what it was like to kill a human being.

Jason and Amy were standing outside a Providence, R.I., nightclub when they were abducted in the course of a carjacking. The predators drove them to the golf course and made them beg for their lives. Amy was sitting on the ground behind Jason, hugging his back and clutching her mother's engagement ring.

After they'd had enough fun, the killers put a bullet in Amy's head and two in Jason's.

Providence police are so appalled by the crime that they've asked Rhode Island's attorney general to turn the case over to the justice department.

There's a federal statute providing for the death penalty when a carjacking results in murder. Rhode Island doesn't have capital punishment.

Ernest Burgeson says, "I hope I live long enough to see them put to death." When you wish upon a star.

While Jason and Amy were still front-page news in Boston, The New York Times carried the latest installment in its crusade against the death penalty. "Death Sentences Being Overturned in 2 of 3 appeals," the headline claimed.

It was a typically misleading argument. While it's true that death sentences were vacated in two-thirds of the cases in the study mentioned, in most, the conviction remained or the accused was convicted of a lesser homicide.

Frequently, the sentence was thrown out because of reversible error, including lack of effective counsel. Often, an activist judge, who was shopping for an excuse to save a killer, decided that a capable lawyer just wasn't good enough.

The murderers of Burgeson and Shute aren't even the most persuasive walking ads for the long walk. Last week, the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of Bobby Lee Ramdass. His agile lawyers tried for a reversal on a point so technical that it defies a concise explanation.

In a three-month period in 1992, Bobby Lee robbed two pizza shops, shot a cab driver and murdered two men in separate incidents. Where did we fail this lad?

The killings of Jason and Amy are ghastly. But what about the child who was raped and murdered, the elderly woman bludgeoned to death or torture slayings?

Opponents of capital punishment would have us believe that death row is populated with innocents who were railroaded by police or prosecutors. In the cases where DNA comes into play, that's easy enough to prove.

There is a blood bath of the innocent, but not in execution chambers. From 1973 (when the death penalty was reinstated) to 1997, 432 executions took place. In the same period, 500,000 Americans were murdered.

A murderer is more likely to be struck by lightening than pay the ultimate penalty. The time it takes to execute a convicted murderer is now over a decade -- sufficient to run DNA tests and scrutinize the record from every conceivable angle.

So what do we do with the animals who killed Jason and Amy for sport -- put them in a cage where they could kill again or escape and inflict more misery on the innocent, take a chance that in 20 years some sympathetic governor will commute their sentences?

In the meantime, there's Ernest Burgeson and his life sentence. Try to imagine the last moments of Jason's life, then look his father in the face and tell him you oppose the death penalty.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest book is Who's Afraid of the Religious Right. Comment on his column by clicking here.


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© 2000, Creators Syndicate