September 21, 2004: Newsday


Give cop killers life without parole

The recent slaying of two detectives does not warrant restoration of capital punishment in New York State

Op-Ed By Kathy Dillon [Kathy Dillon, a former social worker from Syracuse, is a member of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty.]

The recent tragic murder of two police detectives in Brooklyn left many people reeling, including me. When I was 14 years old, my father was shot and killed in the line of duty on the New York State Thruway. He had been a state trooper for 16 years.

So news of the Brooklyn shooting awakened some very painful memories for me. The crime also left some people calling for restoration of capital punishment, after Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes said it could not be sought in this case because of a recent Court of Appeals ruling striking down the state’s death-penalty law. Some said the death penalty is the only way to protect police officers who risk their lives every day to protect us.

But I’m not so sure. New York had the death penalty in 1974, when my father was murdered, but it didn’t protect him. And since the death penalty was reinstated in New York in 1995, police officers continue to be shot and some have been killed. Some might believe that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime, but these events suggest otherwise.

Ten years after my father’s murder, my boyfriend of four years was also murdered. Issues related to crime and punishment are woven into the fabric of my life. We all seek a more peaceful and just society, yet I have found that there are no easy answers.

Some say the death penalty is the answer. I have family members who share this view, but it is not the answer for me. Executing the man who murdered my father would not have brought me peace. Whereas some advocates of capital punishment claim that an execution brings “closure” to surviving loved ones, I think most of us feel that there is no closure. I’ll always miss my father; an execution would never change that.

Far from bringing closure, a capital prosecution may do the opposite. After a death sentence is handed down, the legal proceedings drag on for years with the outcome left uncertain at best. The emotional wounds of victims’ family members are opened again and again.

One thing I know clearly: In my lifetime, I must give voice to my opposition to the death penalty. In the wake of a murder, we all feel deep sadness, outrage and vulnerability. But the antidote to violence is not more violence. For me, an execution in response to a murder in my life would only have added to the horror and the trauma of the whole experience. I know too well the far-reaching, damaging effects of violence to want any more violence.

I wouldn’t want to spend 10 or 20 years waiting for some illusory “closure.” If one of my loved ones’ murderers had been executed, it wouldn’t have made me feel any better. Rather, it would have driven home the truth that no number of state-sanctioned killings could compensate for the loss of my loved ones. A life taken by execution would not have replaced the precious life lost.

New York’s 1995 law is usually referred to as the death-penalty statute. But the real value of that legislation was not the death penalty - which has proved ineffective, costly, unjust, and (according to the recent Court of Appeals ruling) unconstitutional. The bill’s real achievement was the provision for life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. With no executions and millions of dollars wasted, the death penalty has been a failure. But, with 143 murderers locked up for good since life without parole went into effect, New Yorkers can feel safer. The man who shot my father might someday walk free because life without parole wasn’t an option in 1974. Now it is. Life without parole is sufficient to keep New Yorkers safe while guaranteeing that no innocent person will be executed by mistake. It’s a viable, effective alternative to the death penalty - one that reinforces the value of human life.

I belong to a national organization called Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, dedicated to abolishing the death penalty. The words of Marietta Jaeger Lane, a fellow member whose 7-year-old daughter was murdered, stay with me. She said, “Our loved ones deserve more beautiful, noble and honorable memorials than premeditated state-sanctioned killings.”

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