Federal prosecutors recently decided that alleged D.C. “snipers” John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo should first be tried in Virginia, because, according to Attorney General John Ashcroft, “We believe that the first prosecutions should occur in those jurisdictions that provide … the best range of available penalties.”
Translation: Virginia ranks only behind Texas in the number of executions since 1982, and therefore is the most likely state to sentence both the 41-year-old Muhammad and 17-year-old Malvo to death.
Why was killing these men the top priority in deciding jurisdiction?
Police in Alabama filed charges first, and Maryland wanted first dibs because most of the sniper attacks took place in that state.
There seems to be a greater interest in revenge than in justice.
Killing these men is not going to ease anyone’s pain, nor will it bring back those who they allegedly killed.
The penalty for a crime should not be a consideration before the defendants have even appeared for their preliminary hearings.
However, Muhammad and Malvo are easy targets.
They are black, and, more importantly, they are poor.
The two drifters are relying on court-appointed attorneys for their defense.
Murder suspects with public defendants are sentenced to death at much higher rates than wealthy suspects who can hire a lawyer from a big law firm.
For example: convicted murderer John E. DuPont, who killed former Olympic wrestler David Schultz in 1996.
DuPont, a millionaire many times over, received a life sentence for his crime.
DuPont had an expensive lawyer and the death penalty was never even considered.
DuPont was also mentally ill, but that only keeps you off of death row when you have your own lawyer.
There are many poor, mentally ill convicted murderers who are facing the death penalty.
What makes the sniper killings any more heinous that the death of Schultz?
Why do Muhammad and Malvo deserve death more that DuPont?
Aside from arguments about the morality of the death penalty, executions are applied in a discriminatory manner.
Poor defendants who do not understand their rights and whose court-appointed lawyers sleep through their trials are dead from the moment they are arrested, while the rich often get off with a reduced sentence in a cushy minimum security facility.
Muhhamad and Malvo’s cards have been marked in advance.
With all of the media coverage, they could not get a fair trial anywhere in America.
Since their conviction is assured, so is the death penalty in Virginia.
After years of court battles, they will run out of money and options for appeals, and then they will die.
Unfortunately, this is the story of far too many poor people, including many who were convicted on much weaker evidence than the snipers will be.
The death penalty has snuffed out innocent lives in the past, and it will in the future.
It is an unalterable fate once it has been carried out, making murderers out of us all.
Brian White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org