Thursday, December 23, 2004


If you think it's so wonderful, try it yourself.

Speaker Hints Death Penalty May Be Passé


ONE of the state's most powerful political figures, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, said yesterday that after a legislative lifetime of supporting capital punishment, he was not so sure the state needed a death penalty law anymore, given its record since its reinstatement in New York nearly 10 years ago.

"Funny thing, I've never objected to the death penalty," the speaker said in an interview, shortly after returning from a trip to Israel. "But really, someone like me looks at it and says: 'Hey, it's not enforced anyway. We've spent millions of dollars on appeals, and after 10 years there hasn't been an execution in this state.' "

Mr. Silver said that he was not predicting how the Assembly would vote. Or whether it would vote at all. It can do as the Republican-led Senate has, revising the law to address the court's concerns. Or it can do nothing.

That would leave the law as is - without the death penalty, but with life without parole, a part of the 1995 law that withstood court scrutiny.

Asked if he would contemplate maintaining the status quo, Mr. Silver said it was possible: "My question is, beyond an issue of conscience, is life without parole enough? It may very well be for a lot of people who think the death penalty is fine but see that it doesn't happen anyway. It's a matter of practicality, not conscience."

Supporters of the death penalty argue that life without parole is an unjust solution because it lets murderers read, exercise, study - in other words, live out their lives in relative comfort. True, Mr. Silver said, "but the reality is, that's what happens even to people sentenced to death."
Actually, the reality really is, life without parole is a horrible penalty, in some ways actually worse than execution. Think about it - a 25-year-old murderer sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. He could spend 50, even 60 years behind bars, knowing that he is never going to get out. Never marry, never have children, never go on vacation, never have a career, never accomplish a damn thing with his life. I can't imagine much worse. I think that after awhile in that situation, I'd beg for death.

Yes, the victim will do none of those things, either. But killing the murderer won't bring the victim back. Nothing will do that. Killing murderers doesn't deter future murderers, either. And it runs the risk of executing the innocent. Which, as far as I am concerned, is itself murder. Perhaps even less forgiveable than the kind we punish with life without parole.

We have a choice. We can be decent human beings and forebear from our vengeful instincts - or we can be slavering animals, baying and yelping and salivating at the prospect of satisfying our basest emotions. We are kind to prisoners not for their sake but for ours. The cruel kindness of life without parole is a truly just punishment for someone who has committed the worst of crimes. Anyone who thinks inmates live in "relative comfort" should try it for themselves. After a day, you'll be shrieking to get out. You'll kiss the free ground under your feet. And you'll never be so sanguine again about the ordeal prisoners undergo.
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