- The Washington Times - Friday, August 18, 2000

Over 15,000 Americans are murdered every year. Ninety-eight people were executed in 1999. Obviously, a lot of very guilty people never come close to the execution chamber. Yet certain anti-death penalty agitators, joined by prominent Christian figures, have lately portrayed America as a vast killing machine for falsely accused murderers. They are wrong.

The latest media hubbub against capital punishment relies primarily on bogus statistics and the misleading claims of the political left. Christians opposed to executing murderers should not adopt such a flawed approach to advance what should be a moral case against executions.

One Washington-area Catholic newspaper recently ran just such a flawed editorial. "70 percent of capital convictions have been overturned on appeal," pronounced the editor. Hmmm. Does that mean that 70 percent of those defendants were found innocent? No, (although the reader was left to believe the error). The prisoners simply weren't executed. The statistic suggests but two things: First, arrogant appeals court judges routinely place their own anti-death penalty views ahead of the people's verdicts. Second, it is extremely hard to win death penalty convictions, even when a murderer's guilt is unquestioned. And isn't that a good thing for those who oppose capital punishment?

We also hear that "too many" poor people are on death row. This sounds compassionate but is really just proletarian mush. I won't even research the statistics but simply ask: Where's the "bad" part of any town in America? By the country club? Come on. The NFL aside, most wealthy people don't need to murder to achieve their goals. And middle class folk mostly get that way by working hard and obeying the rules. One of those rules is not murdering people.

Ah, but "the poor can't get good defense lawyers." Maybe. Yet every prosecutor is a government employee. Are they somehow blessed with superior skills that dazzle and confuse their fellow government employees, the public defenders? If anything, thanks to high-powered legal activists who squander countless hours of pro bono work keeping even known murderers alive, many on death row get some of the best legal aid available at any price. Besides, what would those who make these "poor" arguments have us do to even things out, anyway? Round up 100 rich people every year and shoot them?

Next, to intimidate Christians, the "mercy" crowd hurls the all-purpose "race grenade." There are too many black people on death row. We nod compassionately. After all, we've seen the movies: Slack-jawed all-white juries just can't wait to hang the first black lad who strolls along. But wait. Are blacks really "over-represented" on death row? Hardly. Blacks commit half of all U.S. murders. Since blacks make up about 13 percent of the American population, the group's murder rate is therefore about four times its "quota." Blacks are seven times more likely to commit murder than whites and about 15 times more likely to kill a white person than vice-versa. The racial breakdown on U.S. death rows roughly parallels these ugly truths (although 98 executions is too small a sample to be meaningful). We may wring our hands with liberal guilt and self-loathing, but the "racism" charge is both baseless and incendiary.

Perhaps the secular "mercy" crowd needs its misleading factoids because it cannot name one innocent person executed since the death penalty returned in 1977. Yet just off the cuff, I recall cases where innocent victims were killed by murderers earlier spared execution.

My favorite: Several years ago, a marriage con artist murdered his sixty-something bride in Arizona. The killer, himself in his sixties, had recently completed a lengthy prison term for murdering his first wife after a similar scam 30 years before. Had he been executed in the 1960s, his second wife would be alive today.

Then there was the Tison family. In 1978, the adult Tison boys smuggled guns into an Arizona prison and helped their father and another prisoner, both of whom were serving life sentences for murder, escape. A Marine named John Lyons later unwittingly stopped to help the escapees fix their car's flat tire. Lyons no doubt wishes the convicts had been executed for those earlier murders: Daddy Tison and his accomplice shotgunned Lyons to death, along with Lyons' wife, their 22-month-old son and a 15-year-old niece. According to a source from the Florence State Prison, the gang also sexually desecrated the niece, Theresa Tyson, with a bullet. Mortally wounded, the teen made herself a tourniquet, then crawled into the desert night and bled to death.

Days later, the road-tripping Tison gang murdered a young honeymooning couple in Colorado. But hey, what's a little spilled innocent blood, compared with the giddy thrill of proclaiming how merciful and not bigoted we are? And speaking of irrational hurdles to execution: Three surviving Tison gang members were sentenced to die, but 8 years later with Arizona's own Sandra Day O'Connor writing the opinion the U.S. Supreme Court overturned two of those death sentences. The two Tison sons now sleep in warm prison beds, while John Lyons' family robbed of its right to life lies in the cold dirt of a cemetery. The third killer, who had told police in 1978, "you're Gdamned right [Theresa] was shot," was finally executed 18 years after his conviction.

Rather than obsessing over saving the earthly lives of murderers, Christian activists should redirect their moral energy toward saving the heavenly souls of those who await execution.

Daniel J. Rabil is a writer living in Washington.

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