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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: November 11, 2009 @ 11:08 am

    Death Penalty for Mass Killer

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    Listening to the details of the execution by lethal injection of John Allen Muhammad, the Washington Sniper, was pretty horrific. Thank goodness we have gotten rid of the death penalty here and that it is part of the conditions of membership of the European Union: definitely a plus, whatever way you voted on Lisbon.

    Van removes the body after execution

    It’s not that the Sniper’s actions weren’t equally horrific, if not more so, as the people he killed were totally innocent. But it is one of the marks of distinction between civilisation and the underworld that human life is sacred, even the life of a mass killer.

    After all, the killers of Bobby Kennedy and John Lennon were not executed: they are still in jail as far as I know. What this guy did was utterly appalling and clearly there was little sympathy for him in any quarter. But in this writer’s view, executing the perpetrator compounds the offence. It may provide a sense of satisfaction to some and assuage the desire for vengeance but I prefer to adhere to the Fifth Commandment, Thou Shalt Not Kill.

    As I listened to the radio this morning, I could recall my own sense of vulnerability on arriving in Washington at the time to cover the story. I was at the United Nations where the impending invasion of Iraq was top of the agenda but things were moving slowly there so I was asked to go to the US capital where John Allen Muhammad and his young companion were dominating the news.  The notion that two madmen are careening around, shooting people at will is somewhat unnerving when you are on the ground. If anyone is interested, here is a news feature I wrote at the time:-


    Three weeks of terror and trauma culminated in the arrest of two suspects – and America relaxes again. Deaglán de Bréadún reports from Washington

    Conrad Johnson was a family man. He played football with his two young sons and the other kids too. He was the only dad in the neighbourhood who would pick up a ball and toss it around with the little guys. It must have been a thrill, an affirming experience, for the boys to play ball with a big man, more than six foot tall. Some day I’m gonna be big and strong like him, you can hear them say.
      Conrad was a responsible parent. When the sniper shootings started in Maryland, the area where he lived, he kept his kids in the house. No sense in taking risks with your children’s lives. But Conrad, he had to go to work. An immigrant from Jamaica, nobody was throwing rolls of dollar-bills or gold watches at a black man like him.
      Last Tuesday morning, he set out as usual for his job as a bus driver, with a start-time of 6 a.m. One imagines him stepping quietly through the house, so as not to wake his wife or the two boys. Clearly a conscientious employee, he arrived in good time at the starting-point for the buses of the Ride On company which operates in Maryland. They are modest, single-decker vehicles, blue on the outside, with blue seats inside. The customers are mostly black or Hispanic and the notices above their heads show that they do not attract the interest of advertising executives. No L’Oreal, no Prado, but mainly public-service appeals to have a check-up for cancer, or a simple poster with the American flag, recalling the sacrifices of “citizens, military, police and fire personnel” who lost their lives on September 11th, 2001.
      Conrad Everton Johnson was standing at the top of the steps into the bus, unaware that the last minutes of his life were ticking away. Just below his feet there was a yellow sign in English and Spanish, Watch your step; Pise con ciudado. It’s a narrow entrance, so anyone planning to shoot Conrad would probably have had to get in quite close. So it may be the case that he saw his attacker before he was shot. The main suspect is African-American and what Johnson thought if he saw another black man shooting at him can only be imagined.
      A world gone mad. After nearly three weeks of sniper shootings without a suspect, the media were at the seventh level of frenzy. Conrad was taken to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead. Instead of withholding the name until relatives were notified, somebody leaked it to the media. His name went out on the news before his wife and children – not to mention his large extended family – knew he was dead. The crime scene was sealed off as police searched for precious clues, a footprint maybe or a spent cartridge. Six New York reporters allegedly scaled the fence and may face charges for entering the area without permission.
      It’s tempting to speculate what would have happened if Conrad was white, but that’s another day’s work. The police, through Montgomery County Chief Charles A. Moose, had been sending conciliatory messages to the sniper through the media and this latest killing was a crushing disappointment. If citizens in a sleepy dormitory zone like this could not go about their business without getting shot, what was the point of a police force at all?
       Six of the 10 killings were in Montgomery County. A cab-driver of Asian origin, Premkumar Walekar, was filling his car at a petrol station when the sniper struck. His daughter saw the report on television, recognised the American flag in the back of the car and went to the hospital to identify the body. The sniper was, as Chief Moose pointed out, an equal opportunity killer who attacked “all races, all genders, all professions”.
    We have become sadly accustomed to residents of the Washington area, not to mention outsiders, “taking a pop” at their President. The moody loner nursing an obscure grievance against the inhabitant of the White House is a familiar phenomenon.
      The lives of ordinary folk are at risk in robberies and muggings but, however terrible, these killings are at least rational to the extent that financial gain is meant to accrue to the attacker. But who could have a grudge or grievance against Sarah Ramos or Sonny Buchanan or Linda Franklin or Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera? This was when the armchair experts came into their own and some of them seemed to be permanently parked in the TV studios. It became an endless parade of criminologists, lawyers, suspect-profilers, ballistics analysts, child psychologists, clergy, history professors and terrorism consultants. Truly has it been said that “an expert is a guy from somewhere else, carrying a briefcase”. At least one network was running 24-hour coverage and, in the absence of hard news, the time just had to be filled.
      While no society is immune, the US seems to be peculiarly prone to mass hysteria. Back in the late 1930s, the actor Orson Welles caused widespread panic with his War of the Worlds radio broadcast, which many took to be a genuine report of a Martian invasion. The anthrax scare was another example of how a tragic but still limited number of deaths seemed to paralyse a nation in emotional terms. The danger of being killed by a car was many times greater than getting shot by the Washington Sniper but it was the latter who terrorised the public imagination.
      “Why is it such a big story in Europe?” an American colleague inquired.
      Perhaps there is something primaeval and visceral about the idea of being shot in the street for no apparent reason by a total stranger. This was blind destiny, the fickle finger of fate at its most malignant. In a Christian culture, we are constantly warned, Ye know neither the day nor the hour. To the residents of Washington and its environs, the sniper was bringing this point home. No wonder he said, in a Tarot card left at a crime scene, “Dear Policeman. I am God.”
      What do we know about the chief suspect and his wretched sidekick? Someone who knew them rightly described their lives as “chaotic”. From the jumble of information emerging, it was possible to elicit that John Allen Muhammad had changed his name from Williams when he converted to some home-made version of Islam. His life was a crazy cacophony of broken marriages and battles for child custody including alleged abduction, a failed attempt to start a karate school, a barring order from an ex-wife, and a series of shifting residences including a shelter for the homeless. He also served as a soldier in the Gulf War, an experience hardly likely to enhance respect for the sanctity of human life.
      Then he teamed up with the boy, at first thought to be his stepson, but in fact not a relative in the formal sense, although Muhammad appears to have been involved with his mother at some stage. Whatever he may or may not have done to others, John Lee Malvo is a sad case. He came to the US from Jamaica, the same place as Conrad Johnson, at the age of 10, with a group of illegal immigrants. Strictly speaking, he should have been deported, but somehow managed to escape the net. His short life seems to have been one of aimless drifting and when he eventually landed at the front door of Bellingham High School, on the west coast, he had no transcripts or documentation from any previous institution.
      Intelligent but disturbed, he seems to have chosen the 41-year-old Muhammad as his role-model and surrogate father-figure. A widely-distributed photograph shows the pair of them smiling and happy, for all the world like any proud father and admiring son at ease in each other’s company.
      In an uncanny echo of the film Badlands they roamed around in their blue Chevy, choosing victims at random.
      The events of September 11th, which caused such trauma for everyone, may have finally unhinged Muhammad and his youthful associate. At the police briefing in Montgomery County on Thursday night, there were constant references to “9-11″ and other evidence also suggests it may well provide an important background to the case. Like the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, it appears that Muhammad felt a particular resentment and bitterness towards the US government and that he had expressed some admiration for the “9-11″ hijackers.
      Apparently destined for a life of obscurity, he may find some macabre consolation now in his worldwide fame.
      The story swamped the moves towards war in Iraq and rudely shunted the US mid-term elections off the front page.
      Indeed, it is likely that many people in the Washington area would have been afraid to go and vote if they felt the sniper were still at large.
      The police performance in the case was mixed. There was a sense coming across that too many agencies and groups were involved, with consequent reluctance to take risks by releasing information.
      The full details of the car used by the suspects were revealed by the media, resulting in the tip-off that led to the arrests. The low point of the investigation was when two hapless illegal immigrants were arrested by mistake, which probably frightened off other illegals who might have had valuable information. But in the end, the system worked – too late for the 13 victims, 10 dead and three seriously wounded, but hopefully in time to save other lives.
      The good news is that Hallowe’en is no longer in freeze-frame mode and parents throughout the US (because nobody knew where the killer would strike next) can with reasonable assurance allow their children to go trick-or-treating, knowing that all the scary monsters will just be other kids wearing masks, or figments of television fantasy.   But Conrad Johnson won’t be trick-or-treating with the kids, this or any other year. He is gone to another place where one hopes he is getting better treatment than in this one. Meanwhile, after a life of disturbance and drift, John Allen Muhammad has finally come to anchor. “I know where I’m at,” he told the magistrate as he was being charged on Thursday night. “I know why I’m here.”

    • Emmet says:

      I couldn’t disagree more. Execution is a perfectly legitimate response to such crimes.

    • Your point about the death penalty is well made, Deaglán. Despite the fact that there are dozens of people I’d like to kill (not really, officer), one of the few things I am sure of in life is that the death penalty demeans any society that adopts it.

      Still, every poll in virtually every country suggests that a majority of the population thinks differently. Ho hum.

    • Bernd Biege says:

      Whatever argument or emotion is brought forward to justify the death penalty, one argument against it sums it up for me – there can never be a retrial after the execution.

    • Andrew Arnold says:

      I believe in the Bible. An eye for an eye.

    • Patrick says:

      The death penalty is an asset for any country. It not only gives the person what is needed for the given committed act but setd a example to others. The do-gooder policy does nothing and is very costly to the tax payer. For those that want to preach goodness and forgiveness, read the history book. A good rope and public viewing is the real answer for many crimes. Why should crime that calls for the death penalty be treated with the do-gooder’s slap-the-hands policy?

    • John Locke says:

      He knew when he terrorized the city that the death penalty existed, and if caught, he might be executed. He was given a fair trial, and now justice was done. This is a civilized society. To not punish such horrific actions with death would be uncivilized.

    • Jonathan says:

      In general I agree. In addition the worst thing about the death penalty is the possibility of executing the wrong person, which is reason enough for abolishing it.
      There is in my opinion one exception, and that is dictators who needlessly made millions of people’s lives a misery. They fully deserve to be executed in my opinion, and there is no chance of mistaken identity. Ceaucescu, Saddam Hussein fully deserved what they got. Call it primeval revenge? So be it. It’s a natural human reaction. The only regret is that Hitler and Stalin didn’t get to be excuted.

    • rdw says:

      The only thing wrong with the death penalty is not using it more often! For those of you that are against it, let.s put you and your kids in the same jail cell with these losers. After he rapes and murders your six-year-old daughter, let’s see if you change your opinion.

    • rdw1 says:

      As far as executing the wrong person, Genius, yeah, that is wrong, but doesn’t happen very often, if ever. The only individuals that should be executed are the ones where we have video, witnesses, DNA etc, etc. If you don’t have those things, of course it should be taken off the table. But now with DNA, executing innocent people is the thing of the past, although I’m sure there’s a slight chance it might still happen in .01% of the cases

    • Ian G says:

      Hooray for the internet and the higher proportion of nutters.

      The death penalty is never justified, not even if it did reduce crime or serve as an example to prevent crime. But it doesn’t do that anyway, so it is further unjustified.

    • Beanz says:

      Capital punishment reduces the state to the level of the criminal. It is not about justice, it is about vengeance. There is no place in civilised society for such barbarism. The US is rightly twinned with Saudi Arabia,China, Yemen and some other crackpot countries in this whole affair.

    • Beanz says:

      I can’t believe the lunatics on this blog. So, Andrew Arnold believes in the Bible? What about “Thou shalt not kill”? That’s in the Bible. Some of these idiots must be blogging from their shacks in bible-belt Texas with a shotgun across their lap!

    • Blake says:

      Andrew. You should read your Bible a little more closely. An eye for an eye was given as a bare minimum to prevent spiralling into mass retaliation. Anyway, Jesus said to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. I can’t love my enemy by killing him in the death chamber; I can love him by locking him up (to prevent more deaths) and ministering to him, hoping he may change.

      I agree with this article. I wish we could get more of this sentiment across the Atlantic and into the hearts and minds of US citizens

      And a short response on polling. Sadly most polls say “Are you for the death penalty?” Therefore many blindly say yes. When the poll asks if you prefer the death penalty or life in prison without parole, the overwhelming majority choose life in prison.

    • Well, I suppose my latter point is (regrettably) proved by the posts above. Depressing.

    • Jonathan says:

      To rdw1,
      That’s nonsense. It still happens that innocent people get sent to prison, so therefore it could still happen that innocent people could be executed.

    • David Moriarty says:

      Capital punishment has not reduced the crime rate in the USA. It has the highest prison population in the world, not just in relative terms but in absolute terms.

      Executing murderers is not going to bring back their victims. While it is understandable that the relatives and loved ones of victims may feel the need for this form of justice, a higher moral standard should always be expected from the state.

    • dealga says:

      I wonder why rdw wants to put my child in a jail cell to be raped and murdered by the inmate? Kind of defeats the point of putting rapists and murderers in jail cells, does it not, if you’re going to put children in there?

      Anyway this throws up an interesting question post-Lisbon. There are clearly a lot of people who would prefer government by plebiscite to representative democracy. These people were very vocal during Lisbon 2, but it’s hard to gauge what proportion of the electorate would prefer direct consultation to entrusting those they elect to govern to do so on their behalf.

      We constantly hear from members of the ‘silent majority’ (so silent that ‘they’ never shut up) that the ‘PC elite’ don’t represent them, so are we lucky that our representative democracy makes decisions that 50% + 1 of the population might vote against given half a chance?

      You’d wonder just what 50% + 1 of the electorate would vote for given half a chance…

    • Dylan says:

      I used to oppose the death sentence on moral grounds, but some crimes are so brutal that death seems a fair and proportionate response.

      Closer to home, the guy who raped and murdered Manuela Riedo did so while out on bail awaiting trial for the brutal rape of another foreign student. In a world where there’s no shortage of misery and pain, how can we waste our compassion on such a person?

      It seems to me the only valid argument against the death sentence is that, given its irreversible nature, it requires an extraordinary degree of confidence in police, lawyers and jurors.

      And in Ireland the only people who can have that level of confidence are those who don’t read newspapers.

      The Grangegorman case alone (in which a homeless junkie was somehow ‘persuaded’ by detectives to confess to a double-murder he didn’t commit) shows pretty clearly that the authorities here simply can’t be trusted with the power of life and death over any citizen.

    • Ed says:

      Bring it back and also hard labour – all this tosh about scum not doing their full sentences is absurd – stop giving the scum a wonderful time inside

    • Ed says:

      Interesting read. The death penalty should not be in operation in my opinion. I found it very unnerving to read the comments of the victims’ families after John Allen Muhammad was killed. Of course his crimes were horrific, and he should have been locked away, but more killing is not the answer to this. The whole spectacle of it, with family members going to view the execution and coming out and giving interviews about it to the general public is awful.

    • Frank Jameson says:

      Gandhi put the Old Testament in its place when he said: “An eye for an eye makes the world blind.”

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      John Locke, “He knew when he terrorized the city that the death penalty existed, and if caught, he might be executed. He was given a fair trial, and now justice was done.” And yet he went ahead and did it anyway. So much for the deterrence argument. The US has an enormous prison population and a much higher murder rate, so the death penalty obviousy ain’t working.

      I’ve no problem with the notion of people having to do hard time and also increased sentencing for crimes of violence against the person. But I believe that the death penalty is too easy and soft an option when it comes to the worst of crimes, it’s all over in a short space of time. Make them serve full life sentences.

    • I agree implementing the death penalty just makes the crime more horrific. Besides, why should we give them solace in death, when we are forced to live without our loved ones.

    • Daren says:

      I believe that you, and some of your commentators have gotten it wrong. There is a place for the death sentence in the judicial system. The difficulty is that it cannot be for revenge.

      The primary purpose of the criminal justice system is rehabilitation. We incarcerate criminals not to punish them for their crimes (after all, there are more direct ways of punishing them) but as an opportunity to rehabilitate them. The death penalty could be used for those that the judicial system has decided are beyond any chance of rehabilitation. If it is used, it should never be public. A small number of randomly chosen witnesses (perhaps the jury from their trial), and no members of the public, or victims/relations of victims, no recording devices.

    • Brian Boru says:

      I generally agree with our abolition of capital-punishment in this country, if only because the innocent can be executed. I believe that innocent life is indeed sacred, but I am not so sure that is the case for the lives of the worst of the worst in terms of the murder of innocent people. Maybe capital-punishment is their just deserts – but only if their guilt is absolutely certain. So while my rationale differs somewhat from yours, we both oppose capital-punishment generally. But when it comes to figures involved in genocide – such as Nazi war-criminals -I would not be found pleading for their lives. Surely there are some whose crimes are so great, and whose guilt is so unquestionable, that consideration should be given to their paying the ultimate price in terms of the sentence conferred on them by the State?

    • conor mcmahon says:

      @ patrick:

      ‘A good rope and public viewing is the real answer for many crimes.’ …


      … 100 years on and the mob still bay for blood. With or without justice there’s little doubt we would find the likes of the ‘pro penalty posse’ at a lynching, ropes and all in hand.

      And yes, this is history too, btw – maybe not from the same books you might read but, there you go.

      Well done the editor for this shrewd and timely inclusion.

    • robespierre says:

      The reason Dostoevsky called his book Crime AND Punishment is that philosophically it asks us what is a just way of society seeking its peaceful entitlement through punishing a perpetrator of a horrible crime (on a horrible person)?

      This answer is never and has never been satisfactorily answered but Raskolnikov lived to see what his Mother and Sister had become because of his act.

      This is something that people that are killed for capital offences never get to see.

    • patrick hegarty says:

      An eye for an eye, a life for a life. Mercy unwarranted is wickedness.

    • Frank Jameson says:

      So it’s Patrick Hegarty versus Mahatma Gandhi. Looks like Hegarty has been given enough rope.

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