What could be more cruel than a sentence of death? A sentence of death dragged out over decades of legal proceedings, for one thing. Or so David Edwin Mason believes. It is after all, his life.
Thirteen years after he strangled five people, Mason has decided to drop further appeals and accept his punishment. His decision and the attempts to stop him speak volumes about crime, punishment and the anti-death-penalty industry.
There are three reasons for capital punishment: deterrence (at least some would-be murderers will refrain), incapacitation (this one won't do it again) and retribution (he deserves it). Mason believes in the last one.
Mason has committed monstrous evil. He has come to terms by acknowledging his crime and accepting his punishment. He has found a kind of redemption, a "pool of peace" he calls it, in that acceptance. That would be stripped away if he had to endure a long travail of litigation.
Yet meddling lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, renewing a suit to ban use of the gas chamber, are trying to strip Mason of his dignity and force him down a path he finds ignominious. In short, they want to force him down the road Robert Alton Harris traveled. (Their cause was aided Tuesday when a federal judge in San Jose issued a stay of Mason's scheduled Aug. 24 execution, to allow a lawyer fired by him to appeal the judge's own decision that Mason was mentally competent to decide not to appeal his death sentence.)
The Harris story is well known. In the initial rounds of review, the state provided Harris with legal counsel and the opportunity to present every challenge he had to his death sentence for the killing of two San Diego teen-agers in 1978. Those challenges were fully considered by the California Supreme Court, which was then the most vehemently anti-death-penalty court in the nation. He was further permitted to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case. That process was completed in 1981, three years after the crime. Since there was no doubt that Harris was the one who murdered the two boys, that should have been the end of legal proceedings, with only executive clemency as a potential avenue of mercy. Yet the proceedings continued for 11 more years.
As many people have strenuously argued, this system is unfair to the victims' families and unfair to society. Harris' last days and Mason's current predicament illustrate another point. The endless appeals may also be unfair to the condemned. Rather than saying, "The judgment is final, no more review, prepare to take your punishment," we instead say to the condemned man, "You won't know if it is final until the moment they pull the lever."
The Harris case illustrates in the starkest terms how unlimited litigation can rob a condemned man of his last chance at dignity. On April 21, 1992, Harris had entered the gas chamber stoically, assured prison officials that he bore them no personal ill will and was ready, in the traditional phrase, to meet his maker. Then the phone rang and Judge Harry Pregerson issued his infamous stay of execution. Harris was removed from the chamber and brought back less than an hour later.
Opponents of the death penalty uniformly contend that it is degrading, but death is not inherently degrading. We all die; it is a matter of how and when. A person who has lived an utterly degraded life may yet find dignity in the end. The only degradation in the Harris execution was that caused by his lawyers. Harris himself, for all his past crimes, was ready to make his exit with dignity. David Mason wants to "pass from life with clean hands, straight eyes, pure heart," and has chosen the path that, in his mind, will do that.
The dedicated anti-death-penalty coalition says, in effect, "So what? Your opinion doesn't count." The pursuit of its political agenda cannot be hampered by the inconvenience of an old-fashioned stoic who has made his peace with his conscience and who is ready to face his punishment rather than grovel in the gutter of mental-incompetence claims.
Whatever happened to the sanctity of private choice, which the ACLU defends with such zeal in other contexts? Whatever rights may exist to further appeals, they belong solely to the convict. Rights, by nature, include the freedom to choose not to exercise them. Freedom of religion includes the right not to be religious. Freedom of speech includes the right not to speak. The right to appeal includes the right not to appeal.
The ACLU is violating David Mason's rights. It should butt out.