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Keep Life Without Parole, Life After Death

A Commentary by Debra J. Saunders

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Because courts can sentence murderers to life without parole, why not get rid of the death penalty? It's a frequent question posed by readers and advocates who oppose the death penalty. For years, my answer has been: If death-penalty opponents ever succeed in eliminating capital punishment, their next target for elimination will be life without parole --or as lawyers call it, LWOP.

As if to prove my point, the Sentencing Project just released a report, "No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in America," which advocated for -- you guessed it -- the elimination of LWOP. The report also lamented that governors and parole boards are not paroling more prisoners serving life (with parole) sentences.

The death penalty still stands, and already opponents are trying to shave the only alternative sentence that ostensibly protects the general public from the most dangerous predators.

(I say ostensibly in view of the fact of that California's last lethal-injection recipient, Clarence Ray Allen, chose to aid his legal appeal by ordering the murder of eight witnesses while he served a life sentence in prison for murder. An accomplice killed three innocent people before he was caught.)

The Sentencing Project is a national organization that works to promote alternatives to incarceration. Ashley Nellis, one of the authors, told me that the Sentencing Project opposes both the death penalty and LWOP.

She is aware that getting rid of LWOP would remove a common argument in favor of ending capital punishment. But: "Both of those sentences are problematic because they offer no hope for release -- and basically say that certain people are unredeemable. They have no incentive to try to turn their lives around."

Clearly there is a schism between how the Sentencing Project and your average juror looks at felony murder. Juries sentence violent criminals to death or life behind bars because they see certain crimes as so brutal that they must be punished severely.

The 48-page report addressed LWOP and the fact that "it has become increasingly difficult for persons serving a life sentence to be released on parole." It lamented the fact that governors are decreasingly likely to heed parole board recommendations to release convicts and unabashedly called for an end to juvenile LWOP sentences.

The problem is: I can't trust a report with five tables dissecting the racial and ethnic makeup of inmates -- 48 percent are black, 33 percent are white and 14 are Latino -- but not a single chart that tells me what exactly America's 140,000-plus inmates did to earn their life sentences. Nellis and co-author Ryan S. King think it is wrong that one in 11 prisoners is serving a sentence of life or LWOP, but they don't provide information that indicates whether one of 11 inmates is seriously dangerous and belongs behind bars.

"We didn't have access to the crimes that were committed," Nellis told me, although she conceded "most" inmates serving LWOP sentences "are in for murder."

In that the Sentencing Project has had no problem coming up with statistics on draconian sentences that reveal the undeniable and outrageous excesses of America's war on drugs, I don't think the researchers tried too hard. When the statistics bolster their argument, they find them.

Don't worry about the Charlie Mansons of the world, Nellis told me, as they never will be paroled. And she stressed this important point: "We don't believe that everyone should get parole. We think everyone should have the opportunity for parole."

As the report argued, "Life-without-parole sentences are costly, shortsighted and ignore the potential for transformative personal growth."

This may surprise some readers (as they know I believe in the death penalty), but I do not believe the criminal justice system should rob the repentant of the opportunity for transformative personal growth. I believe convicted killers can atone -- but they should do so from within their prison cells.

And they can repent on Death Row. "No Exit" cites the American Law Institute's support for "elimination of life without parole as an alternative to the death penalty." But it's clear advocates don't want an alternative.

Given their objections to life sentences, if California or the federal government ever discards the death penalty, all the money that gets sucked into fueling bogus death-penalty appeals simply will move to bankroll anti-LWOP appeals.

To the extent that appeals might help an innocent prisoner, that would be fine. But if you follow these issues, you know that the most unrepentant sociopaths will exploit any opening.

Think Kevin Cooper, who killed chiropractors Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old houseguest in 1983 after he escaped from the California Institution for Men at Chino, where he was serving time under a phony name for burglary. DNA evidence has proved Cooper's guilt -- yet from Death Row, he still finds lawyers who will ignore the evidence, change Cooper's story and assert that he is not guilty.

Think convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu Jamal, -- who was shot in the chest by Philadelphia police Officer Daniel Faulkner -- and found at the crime scene with the gun and identified by four eyewitnesses as Faulkner's killer. To this day, supporters argue that he is a "political prisoner."

End the death penalty, and these violent con artists could be the first to walk -- and it won't be transformative growth for society.

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