A Cautious Man
November 25, 2003
Declared Unfit to Live
The trial of John Allen Muhammad, the "D.C. Sniper Mastermind", ended first with a conviction, followed by a recommendation by the jury for the death penalty. It's clear that Mr. Muhammad is responsible for those terrible crimes, and should be put away. But, news reports have shown once again how the death penalty is an imperfect vehicle for society to deal with the worst criminals among us. News reports (such as this one in my local paper) show the toll taken on the ordinary men and women of the jury, who were asked to recommend a sentence of death. One juror "said videotapes shown by the defense of Muhammad playing with his children made him think Friday that Muhammad should be spared the death penalty. But after a sleepless Sunday night, he changed his mind. " Another "said that the defense offering of home videos showing Muhammad playing with his young children, as well as letters his children wrote to him, 'weighed on this jury a lot.' "
It appears that the jurors were ultimately convinced that Mr. Muhammad was totally and unredeemably lost as a human being. "I think there is no chance of rehabilitation for him," one said. "If he can't be rehabilitated and he's a future danger, I could not live with myself if somebody else got hurt and I'd had the chance to stop it." That person also said: "I'd have a difficult time living with myself if he ever hurt or killed another person. There's no way anybody can guarantee he could not do that if he got life in prison."
It's sad to think that our justice system relies on this dehumanizing mechanism. We are told that it's apparently easier to kill someone, than it is to punish them for life. Our system requires jurors to feel that they would themselves be responsible for Mr. Muhammad's actions, if they were to choose to stop the killing by sentencing him to life in prison. One would think that we could find a better way.