- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 9, 2000


The death penalty was once declared unconstitutional because it was held to be "cruel and unusual." That description is certainly debatable indeed, it was subsequently rejected by the Supreme Court when capital punishment was reinstated more than 20 years ago. But the decision by Attorney General Janet Reno to seek the death penalty in the case of Carl Derek Cooper the gunman charged with a triple killing at a Georgetown Starbucks coffee shop on July 6, 1997 could certainly be described as "arbitrary and capricious." Though murders are committed in the District almost every day, many of them equally brutal, the last person executed for capital murder was Robert E. Carter in 1957.
While the Starbucks murders certainly merit the ultimate sanction against the perpetrator of those crimes, surely it's unequal justice that other killers, guilty of similar or worse offenses, face at most life in prison often with the possibility of parole after 20 years.
Those who believe in the death penalty and there are strong arguments in favor of it ought to be concerned about this uneven application of justice. It results from the fact that District has had no capital punishment statute on the books for years while at the same time numerous federal crimes are in fact punishable by death. Cooper was charged with one such crime: "murder in the course of using a firearm during a crime of violence." But the legalistic hair-splitting and jurisdictional musical chairs don't alter the fact that a great many of the killings that occur in the District are "murder in the course of using a firearm during a crime of violence." There's no material or moral difference. But unless charged with a specific federal offense, the killers don't get their just reward death. Instead, they get an all-expenses paid extended vacation, courtesy of the taxpayers.
The disconnect between sanctions for essentially the same crime, all dependent upon whether one is charged under federal or state law, is dangerous because to any fair-minded person it does indeed seem arbitrary, capricious even cruel and unusual, for that matter. Cold-blooded murder is cold-blooded murder no matter how the legal system might parse it. Until and unless a single standard applies across the board, the death penalty will continue to be vulnerable to attacks by opponents who will use the unease of proponents with its uneven application and capricious nature against them.
If proved guilty, Carl Derek Cooper deserves to die. But so do others who are found guilty of similar crimes. That is the lesson and the warning to be gleaned from this horrible episode.

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