Tuesday, June 16, 2009

It’s Dangerous to Not Execute Murderers

Death penalty opponents have incessantly stressed the possibility that some innocent person might be found guilty and executed -- something that apparently hasn’t happened in the modern era.

And they produce bogus lists of supposed “innocents” on death row -- lists laden with names of people who really did the murder they were charged with, and got off on procedural grounds.

But an article by Aaron J. Veselenak turns the argument around, and lists some cases where failure to execute turned deadly for innocent people.
California, perhaps more so than any other state, has witnessed several occurrences of spared death row inmates raping and murdering anew. Setting the stage for these horrific crimes were several anti-death penalty rulings by a very pro-defendant, judicially-active California Supreme Court in the 1960s and 1970s. In January of 1964 the court ruled that it was improper for a jury to consider the “protection of society” argument when contemplating the death penalty after a murder conviction. This prosecutorial appeal stressed that a convict might repeat his offense if not put to death. In People v. Morse, teenaged killer Joe Morse had his death sentence overturned because the district attorney who prosecuted him had used the protection of society argument to help secure the death sentence. Morse had beat his mother and crippled sister to death with a baseball bat and rock. In an incredible irony, Morse went on to vindicate the DA and his “protection” call by garroting a jail trustee in August of 1964 while waiting for the conclusion of his second penalty trial. If Morse’s first death sentence had been upheld, the life of Thomas L. Toddei would have been saved.
There are other cases.
On January 3, 1979, Robert Lee Massie shot and killed Twin Peaks liquor store owner Boris Naumoff. Massie pled guilty to the murder and was sentenced to death but the conviction and sentence were overturned by the California Supreme Court under Chief Justice Rose Bird, a notorious death penalty foe. Unbelievably, the Bird court declared that Massie couldn’t plead guilty over the objections of his trial attorney. Massie was retried in 1989 and recanted his confession. He was convicted and sentenced to die again. In October of 2000 he dropped his appeals and was executed on March 27, 2001.

Boris Naumoff would never have been murdered if Massie had had his very first death sentence carried out. On January 7, 1965, Massie shot to death Mildred Weiss during a robbery outside her San Gabriel home. He was sentenced to die and even insisted on being put to death. In 1967 Massie came within 16 hours of execution when governor Ronald Reagan granted him a temporary reprieve so he could testify at the trial of his co-defendant. Massie was still awaiting execution when the state’s top court cleared death row [by declaring the death penalty unconstitutional] in the 1972 decision. Massie was paroled in 1978, less than a year before killing Naumoff.

On November 14, 1978, Arminda Wiltsey, a 40-year-old wife and mother, went jogging at Lafayette Reservoir near Walnut Creek, California. She never returned home. Wiltsey was found strangled. She had also been raped. Skin from the killer had been found under her fingernails but for years the murder went unsolved. However in the summer of 2003, DNA from the assailant’s skin was matched to a Texas inmate, Darryl T. Kemp. Kemp was serving a sentence for multiple rapes. Kemp had been on California’s death row for a strangulation murder and several rapes in 1960 when he too was spared death by the Anderson decision. He was paroled in 1978, less than four months before Wiltsey was murdered. Kemp, 71, has been extradited to California and currently awaits trial in March of 2008 for Arminda Wiltsey’s brutal murder. The prosecution plans to seek the death penalty.

Judicial decisions are not the only way condemned inmates are spared. There is also executive clemency, which can create the same threat to innocents. California governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown granted clemency to 23 condemned men in his eight years in office (1959-1967). One 8-time rapist, Edward Simon Wein, was eventually paroled and drowned a woman in her bathtub. He was captured after sexually assaulting, beating, stabbing and nearly drowning another woman. Brown had this to say years afterward: “Even now, twenty-five years later, I still can’t decide whether I would have let those twenty-three prisoners die if it meant saving the life of that one woman.” Such moral squeamishness over life and death decisions for men convicted of the most evil of crimes helped lead to the rise of Ronald Reagan, for it was Reagan who defeated Brown in the 1966 gubernatorial race and the death penalty was a major campaign issue. California voters were angry with Brown’s many death commutations.
Death penalty opponents will claim that innocents citizens can be protected just as well by life imprisonment as by the death penalty. There are two problems with this argument. First, convicted murderers may kill fellow inmates or prison personnel. They may also escape and kill while on escape.

Second, there is no guarantee that a “life sentence” will actually be a life sentence. Activist judged may overturn any sentence, either by handing down rulings that void a large number of convictions, or by simply deciding that a life sentence is “cruel and unusual.” Chief executives (governors or the President) may decide to placate some special interest group by letting off a whole class of offenders. This has indeed happened.

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14 Comments:

Blogger James Pawlak said...

As an historical note and a reminder to the anti-death-penalty persons within the Church, the Holy See used the death penalty in the Vatican States when they had the duty to protect the innocent. Freed of that duty they now seem free to judge those jurisdictions which still use that penalty to balance their duties.

11:51 AM  
OpenID nickschweitzer said...

This has nothing to do with the death penalty. This has to do with whether it was appropriate to release a criminal b/c of a technicality.

Otherwise your argument can quickly be taken to the absurd conclusion that all criminals should be put to death so that they are not allowed to commit more crimes after release.

1:46 PM  
Blogger PaulNoonan said...

We wouldn't want to let a few minor things like procedure get in the way of executing human beings now, would we?

1:47 PM  
Blogger John McAdams said...

We wouldn't want to let a few minor things like procedure get in the way of executing human beings now, would we?

Sashay(tm)!

I didn't address procedure.

I pointed out that most of the supposed "innocents" who have gotten off death row have in fact been guilty, and have gotten off on procedural grounds.

Whether the should have gotten off on procedural grounds doubtless varies case by case.

The point is that they, as a matter of historical fact, did the murders they were accused of doing.

1:26 PM  
Blogger John McAdams said...

. . . your argument can quickly be taken to the absurd conclusion that all criminals should be put to death so that they are not allowed to commit more crimes after release.

The point is that they were duly convicted, and did acts that fully deserved the death penalty. Failure to execute them caused murders of innocents.

If we cared about reducing crime, and not at all about justice, then executing all convicted felons would be a good idea.

But since we care about both, we don't do that.

But once we limit the case to people who fully deserve to die, then yes, we have every right to try to reduce crime by executions.

1:30 PM  
Blogger PaulNoonan said...

You should use this to teach your class about Orwellian doublespeak:


I didn't address procedure.

I pointed out that most of the supposed "innocents" who have gotten off death row have in fact been guilty, and have gotten off on procedural grounds.

3:47 PM  
Blogger James Pawlak said...

I was a career and professional worker in Wisconsin for 34-years. During that time I worked with a prison psychologist who wore wild shirts, no socks, a beard and "Jesus sandals"---Think of him as a "type".

Yet, when disusing the death penalty, he noted his prior work in Texas's death row, he very strongly stated that all the inmates there deserved to be executed many times over.

7:27 PM  
Blogger John McAdams said...

You should use this to teach your class about Orwellian doublespeak

Another Sashay(tm)!

My point was perfectly clear in the post, but you choose to evade it.

Are you admitting that the majority of people on the "innocents on death row" lists in fact did the murder they were convicted of?

You seem to be afraid to address this issue.

11:25 PM  
Blogger PaulNoonan said...

Are you admitting that the majority of people on the "innocents on death row" lists in fact did the murder they were convicted of?

Nope. I don't know how you can tell that someone "has in fact been guilty but has gotten off on procedural grounds." Says who? What do you think procedure is for? Perhaps instead of a jury and judge and legal procedure we should just ask prison guards who we should execute.

8:53 AM  
Blogger John McAdams said...

I don't know how you can tell that someone "has in fact been guilty but has gotten off on procedural grounds."

Well to begin with, the jury thought the person was guilty.

In a typical case, higher courts never contested that the person was guilty, but just said his rights had been violated.

Procedural protections aren't merely about determining guilt or innocence. They are about protecting people from supposed government abuse. Plenty of guilty people happen to get this protection.

Remember, Hitler was never convicted of any crimes in a court with due process. But the historical verdict on him is clear.

By the way, Richard Dieter, who puts the "innocents" list together, admits that a lot of people on it in fact did the crime.

I've debated him. Corner him, and he'll concede that.

10:57 AM  
Blogger PaulNoonan said...

Remember, Hitler was never convicted of any crimes in a court with due process. But the historical verdict on him is clear.

Are you kidding?

Alright, I'm done. This is pointless.

11:03 AM  
Blogger DannyNoonan said...

One of my law school classmates did 12 years for a murder he had absolutely nothing to do with. He wasn't on death row, but only because he "confessed" Texas style. It was a breach of a "procedural technicality" that let the cops do the things they did to get the "confession." We have procedures for a reason.

11:30 AM  
Blogger PaulNoonan said...

http://www.theagitator.com/2009/07/08/this-week-in-innocence-8/

11:35 AM  
Blogger PaulNoonan said...

http://slatest.slate.com/id/2227056/entry/1

1:39 PM  

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