- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 8, 2000

David Leroy Skaggs adorns the cover of a glossy 96-page supplement that accompanies the latest issue of Talk magazine the one with Leonardo DiCaprio on the cover. Lovingly photographed by the celebrated Italian "creative director" Oliviero Toscani, Skaggs, bedecked in red T-shirt and matching trousers, cuts a striking figure as he stands solemnly against a wall, an almost ethereal ray of light illuminating his bulbous head.

So how did Skaggs become such a high-profile cover boy, sharing space with the likes of Leo? Simple. He killed two innocent people.

Indeed, Skaggs is one of 26 convicted murderers featured in the aforementioned supplement, "We, On Death Row," which was conceived and produced by the radically chic Italian clothier United Colors of Benetton. It is part of a $20 million advertising campaign by Benetton that aims to bring a "human face to the individuals on death row," while also, presumably, selling a few cotton tank tops and Merino-wool fitted skirts to socially conscientious shoppers. If its campaign offends the sensibilities of hoi polloi, well, too bad, said Mark Major, U.S. spokesman for the Italian clothier.

"Mr. Benetton and Mr. Toscani do not simply want to be bystanders in the world," he explained. "They want to be participants. It's such a foreign thing for Americans to understand."

Well the only thing this American doesn't understand is why Mr. Benetton and Mr. Toscani devoted 96 pages of hagiography to killers like Skaggs including gentle question-and-answer interviews without offering readers the details of their crimes. Why didn't these Italian anti-death-penalty crusaders show any empathy whatsoever for the innocent men and women whose lives were taken by the 26 death row inmates they profiled? Why hasn't Benetton donated even one lira to a crime-victims fund when it has the wherewithal to spend $20 million on a campaign that makes celebrities out of convicted murderers?

Benetton declares capital punishment is a "domestic sickness" of this country. It notes that by the end of 1999 "the United States will have executed approximately 600 humans since 1976," when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld the constitutionality of capital punishment, ending a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty.

Of course, Benetton neglected to mention that, since 1976, some 480,000 Americans have been murdered by violent criminals like the 26 death row inmates whom it glamorizes in its supplement. If you do the math, that works out to a less than 1 percent chance a murderer will receive the death penalty for taking an innocent life. So the argument can be made that one of the primary reasons that murder the real "domestic sickness" in America is so prevalent in society is that the prospect of being punished to the fullest extent of the law that is, being sentenced to the gas chamber or the electric chair or to lethal injection is so remote. And the reason it is so remote is that the death penalty is so infrequently imposed only 600 times over the past quarter-century out of some 480,000 murders.

Now just suppose a convicted killer had, say, a 50-50 chance of receiving the death penalty (500 percent greater than current odds) and that once an execution date was set, it would be carried out within, say, one year (as opposed to the 11 years the average death row inmate spends behind bars awaiting his or her date with the executioner). You can bet your last $20 million that there wouldn't be nearly as many murders committed in this country.

For if criminals in places like California are cognizant enough to know that if they commit a "third strike" they are almost certain to spend 25 years to life behind bars (with no chance for parole), they surely would be aware if taking an innocent life meant a 1 in 2 chance (as opposed to a 1 in 100 chance) of being executed within a year after conviction.

Had the death penalty been more of a deterrent in 1981 when David Leroy Skaggs robbed the home of elderly Kentucky couple Herman and Mae Matthews, he might have thought twice about shooting them to death. Maybe he wouldn't find himself today on death row.

Maybe he wouldn't be a Benetton cover boy.

Joseph Perkins is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.

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