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Death penalty 'sweeps in the undeserving.'Posted Monday, May 18, 2009, at 2:50 PM
Unless something dramatic and unexpected happens between now and Wednesday, May 20, Dennis Skillicorn is going to die by lethal injection, the first such execution in Missouri since 2005.
Skillicorn and an acquaintance, Allen Nicklasson, accused of the 1994 murder of 47-year-old Richard Drummond, were sentenced to die quite some time ago, but it's taken this long to exhaust their appeals. And there were two other murders besides Drummond's -- senseless and stupid murders, committed, it appears, for no reason at all.
A third participant in the crimes, then-teenaged Tim DeGraffenreid, is serving a life sentence for his role in the crime spree that stretched all the way from Missouri to Arizona and ended in San Diego, Calif.
Nicklasson was the one who pulled the trigger in each of the three murders. Skillicorn was clearly present, but says he didn't know that's what was going to happen.
Some say Nicklasson should die first, since he's the actual shooter -- others don't care, as long as each pays the ultimate price.
Some argue Skillicorn shouldn't die because he's done many, many positive things since his conviction -- another jailhouse conversion, or maybe it's sincere.
I don't care anything about who dies first.
I don't care how many positive things Skillicorn has done since he was sentenced to death, or if he's done anything at all except sit in prison.
But I do think that three people dead is enough.
A life sentence is the appropriate punishment. Skillicorn and Nicklasson will die some day, but it should never be as free men. There should be no parole, no chance of ever living free again, no discussion, no reprieve -- that's all. Nothing more, but certainly nothing less. Even Skillicorn's most ardent supporters don't think he should be released from prison and certainly I don't.
There was a time when I believed that the death penalty was a fair exchange for murder. You kill someone, you pay it back with your own life -- as if executing Skillicorn and Nicklasson would ever be enough to balance the scales of justice for Richard Drummond or Joe and Charlene Babcock.
There are many arguments in favor of the death penalty. Decent people whom I respect and admire believe it's a viable remedy. Some say the death penalty should be available only for specific crimes - only for treason, only for killing a law enforcement officer or only for the most heinous crimes.
I disagree. I believe it should be abolished altogether.
There are a lot of reasons why the death penalty makes no sense. First and foremost, it's not a deterrent to the crimes for which it's assigned. Second, it's expensive. Third, it takes years and years before all the legal requirements can be dealt with, so it certainly is not in the category of swift justice.
And there are other arguments that could be made in either direction. Debate on the subject goes on and on and on. I'm not going to bother addressing any of those arguments, one way or the other.
The only argument that makes any sense to me is this:
The death penalty is a penalty so extreme that we must be absolutely sure we've got the right person. So sure that we don't have to ever wonder if "justice" was done. So sure that "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt" is not a high enough standard. The penalty of execution demands that no doubt exist at all.
We already have ample proof that mistakes have been made, and that innocent men (and a few women) have died for those mistakes. We already know that eyewitness identification is shaky, at best. We already know that people have gone to the death chamber on the testimony of people who lied. Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor acknowledged several years ago that "if statistics are any indication, the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed."
A lucky few have escaped at the last moment and had their sentences commuted. Still fewer have been exonerated with new technologies like DNA.
Leaving the death penalty on the books as an option for any crime is a guarantee that mistakes will happen in the future, just as they have in the past.
We cannot allow more mistakes because we can never fix this kind of mistake. There is no do-over, no one left to whom we can apologize, except perhaps the family of the person executed -- and what good will our apologies do? They won't balance the scales of justice any better than an execution balances the deaths of innocent people.
Author and attorney Scott Turow ("One L," "Burden of Proof," "Presumed Innocent") has, like me, wavered between being in favor of and being opposed to the death penalty. Today, he is firmly opposed and summed up his position (and mine) very neatly in a 2003 interview with Thane Peterson of Business Week magazine:
"I used to ask myself, are there cases out there where I recognize the emotional and moral [need for] execution? For me, the answer was, "Sometimes, yes." [But] the right question is, given that there are such cases, can we devise a legal system that will reach those cases, and only those cases, without sweeping in the undeserving? As much as I answer the first question yes, I answer the second question no. That led me to say that when push comes to shove, I'm against capital punishment."
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Kathy Fairchild received a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration in 1986 from Marycrest College, Davenport, Iowa. She is also a 2003 graduate of the paralegal program at New York University. She moved to Marshall in 2006, following a career of more than 30 years with the world's largest farm equipment manufacturer. She is an Air Force brat and grandmother of four.