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Enforcement of Death Penalty Required

Column by Michael K. Chung
Opinion Editor

Many people will agree that the criminal justice system in the United States is nothing less than a joke. Why is it that a criminal can kill someone, wait for about a year before going on trial, plead an excuse such as "being under the influence of drugs," or "temporary insanity," go to jail, serve time in that prison, and be released? Obviously, there are many aspects of the trial procedure which allow for an individual to clarify his actions and intents. For some cases, this is beneficial, as a death may be purely "accidental." On the other hand, many people, the criminals and the lawyers, take advantage of the leniency of the justice system in the cases of death, clearly making their lives potentially better, while the victim has no choice but to face the consequences of the other's actions. As a result of such attitudes and actions of our society, I feel that the death penalty must be strictly used and enforced so that violent crime can be deterred, and so that a stronger sense of morality (as paradoxical as it seems) and security can be achieved in this country.

In olden times, the biblical notion of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" was a guideline for punishment. Obviously, less democratic methods of government were in power in earlier eras (and still are in some areas of the world), and such punishment was used not only to enforce the rules, but also to create an aura of fear and loyalty toward the governing body. Today, in the United States at least, the justice system does not base itself on such a quality. Rather, this nation was founded on the freedom to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Because the nation began with those ideals, there is no absolute delineation between one person's freedoms and those of another. What makes person X happy may infringe on the freedom of person Y. The laws and the courts determine what exactly those infringements are. Because of the flexible nature of the nation's laws and the nature of its people, person X can charge person Y for a wide variety of things which upset him, no matter how relatively trivial they are.

It was never intended that fear be ever-present in our society. Slowly, however, fear has worked its way into many sectors of the nation, including the ghettos, the suburbs, and college campuses. This is partly due to the remedial (in contrast to redemptive) nature of the judicial system. Instead of punishing a criminal in a manner corresponding to the suffering of the victim -- particularly in cases of assault, battery, attempted murder, or rape -- the perpetrators are often put in jail for a determined period of time and then evaluated for release. Do the prisons and correction facilities foster stronger morals or teach them why what they did was wrong? Few seem to, despite some of their titles as correctional facilities.

Rather, many prisoners more or less take up space, often doing manual labor for the government, and taking part in recreation activities. Many of the prisoners are serving sentences in excess of ten years for murder. Is it really worth it to keep these people there -- especially when those imprisoned have committed blatant acts of murder? Is it more of a punishment to expose a murderer to a long life of potentially hellish prison conditions than to execute him in the first place? For the sake of argument, let us ignore the cost of incarceration, which is estimated at $30,000 per year, as well as the fact that the prisons are overcrowded. However, it should not be overlooked that often, criminals are given suspended or shortened sentences because prisons are crowded.

Fundamentally, it is unfair for a person to take someone's life without just cause, and merely go to jail for it. Take the case of Shon McHugh. He killed another human being. McHugh was reportedly under the influence of alcohol and/or marijuana. He and his two friends accosted Yngve K. Raustein '94 and Arne Friedheim G. The rest of the story is history. If someone does something, he is obligated to do so responsibly, and realize and handle the consequences. Assuming the report to be true, McHugh was under the influence. Anyone that smokes, drinks, or takes drugs ought to realize that he is responsible for his behavior afterwards. McHugh stabbed Raustein. By carrying a knife, McHugh took the responsibility of arming himself, and by using it, McHugh shouldered the accompanying responsibilities.

Did McHugh realize the potential implications that smoking, drinking, and brandishing a weapon before doing so that evening over a year ago? Before he set out that (or any other) night, he, like any other human being, should. If that person can't handle the responsibility, then he shouldn't begin in the first place. Put another way, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

McHugh was tried as a juvenile (he was not yet sixteen years of age at the time of the incident) without a jury. He was sentenced to twenty years in prison. He is scheduled to serve time in the juvenile prison until he is twenty-one, and then he will be transferred to the adult prison. Twenty years of prison is a rather weak sentence. Especially considering his attitude throughout the incident and in the courtroom. He reportedly bragged to his friends that night how he thrust the blade all the way through Raustein's body. In court he said that Raustein impaled himself.

What kind of demented attitude and lack of respect toward human life is this? What is spending twenty years in prison going to do for McHugh? For our society? Is McHugh going to be effectively counseled during his sentence? Will anyone care after him at all in the humanistic sense? Will he realize the magnitude of his actions? Even if any of this happens, the fundamental issue is this: He acted irresponsibly; he killed someone. Period. He deserves what he dished out to his victim -- death. Alongside the "eye-for-an-eye" rule has always been the Golden Rule -- "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Criminals seem to forget this second rule: I can't imagine that criminals would want to be subjected to their own crimes.

Another case reveals the atrocities of human behavior. On Oct. 11, a 15-year-old Rochester boy killed his parents and his 11-year-old sister with a handgun. According to The Boston Globe report, Gerald McCra stole his grandfather's handgun, murdered his mother in the kitchen, and then his father and sister who were in the car, ready to depart for a birthday party. All were shot in the head. McCra then drove the corpses to the nearby woods. When the police came, McCra "led them from a bloody hallway to two windows broken from the outside, suggesting that burglars had entered the house."

So far, no trial dates or conditions have been announced. Even then, what good will a trial do? McCra is known to have a history of misbehavior and bad family relations. Nothing can be done to bring back his mother, father, and sister. McCra obviously acted in an irresponsible manner. Although it may (and probably will be) argued that McCra is too young to know what he was doing, that no one would have guessed that he would have done something this extreme, that he can still be reached out to, it seems silly to pursue such arguments. He killed three human beings. He was related to them. It is said that he had problems with them. He is reportedly under treatment for hyperactivity and his medication apparently is charged as contributing to violent behavior.

If he is not sentenced to death, he will probably be issued a sentence similar to McHugh's -- go to jail for a long time, if not the rest of his life. Is it worthwhile to keep anyone in jail for sentences of such duration? McHugh and McCra will undoubtedly be subjected to the harsh realities of prison life, and what kind of future will be ahead of them if they are released in twenty or thirty years? Quality of life after prison is not the issue though. It is terribly inefficient (in fact, wasteful) to incarcerate someone for so long. Current conditions are not the issue either. The simple issue is this -- these criminals murdered their fellow human beings. Although there are many cases in which the death penalty is of questionable use (e.g. domestic violence, self-defense), some scenarios definitely warrant the expedient use of the death penalty.

By buckling down on such discipline, several things may happen. First, criminals will get what they deserve in the context of this piece. Secondly, justice will be better served for the victim. Someone from Baker House (where Raustein lived) said that since McHugh was found guilty and will serve twenty years in jail, "Justice is served." To me, for justice to be served completely, McHugh would have to be walking with a friend and attacked the same way he attacked Raustein. That way, he can experience the same emotions, fears, and results that Raustein may have experienced. I feel that all such criminals should experience what they put others through. Obviously, this is not at all feasible. The use of the death penalty would come closer to equalizing the issue than current jailing practices do.

Of course, there is the argument that these people deserve another chance, that they are still good for many things. I believe that they have already had their chances. If people followed the Golden Rule and thought about whether or not they would want the same thing to happen to them, much crime would probably not occur. By punishing people quickly and seriously, potential criminals may think again before committing a crime. Awareness of the consequences is not to be interpreted as a fear, but rather, as a more effective way to deter people from the life of crime, whatever its form.