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Why Is the Night Stalker Still Alive? : It's lunacy to keep a man alive so you can give him the death penalty for the 20th time.

November 06, 1994|JOEL D. ROBERTS | Joel D. Roberts is a broadcaster on KABC radio in Los Angeles and is the 1994 recipient of the Anti-Defamation League's First Amendment award

No one who lived through it will ever forget the summer of 1985. Humid days, muggy nights and the air fetid more with terror than smog. This was the season of the Night Stalker and where Richard Ramirez roamed, he reigned. Now, nine years and 19 death sentences later, the Stalker is still likely more than a decade from death. We, the people of California, keep him alive. We house and feed him, clothe and entertain him, minister to his medical needs and facilitate his contact with fans. The fact that he has fans is appalling beyond comment, yet, as we all know, demons fascinate, and for some that fascination leads to love.

But those are the perversities of the fringe; what concerns me here is the perversity of the system. In fact, perverse may be too weak a word for it. Because whether Ramirez is insane--which has long been debated--the travesty that's about to occur surely is.

Already on San Quentin's Death Row, the Night Stalker now awaits trial in San Francisco on one final count of murder. The best possible outcome, from the state's point of view, would be a first-degree conviction with "special circumstances," resulting in yet a 20th death sentence.

This lunatic redundancy will not come cheaply. The Los Angeles trial cost nearly $2 million (which was after the millions spent on the manhunt) and there's no reason to assume the new trial will cost less.

Acutely aware of this utter folly, the presiding judge has registered her disgust. Moreover, the victim's family, whose need for closure might justify the trial, has publicly stated they want no part of it. But the San Francisco district attorney needs to look tough on crime, so here we go with another round.

Well, extravagant as this charade may be, the expense is the least of the problem. The new trial is not only pointless, it's dangerous. By alleging special circumstances, prosecutors have to show multiple murders, which means the Southern California survivors will again have to testify. They'll be forced to resurrect old terrors and, as they struggle with dimming memories the likely discrepancies between current and prior testimony will be fuel on the eager fire of the Los Angeles appeal. In short, what looms here is no mere redundancy, but the very real risk of a reversal. And remember, even if a death sentence is pronounced in San Francisco, another automatic appeal will begin, with its inevitable cycle of further delays.

As much as, if not more than, any monster before him, the Night Stalker draws out in stark relief the fallacies of the anti-death penalty polemic. Typically, abolitionists assert three major points: that capital punishment is legalized murder; that death sentences are disproportionately meted out to minorities, and that an innocent person could be executed in error. In the case of Ramirez, not a single one of these arguments persuades.

First of all, executing murderers is no more the equivalent of murder than incarcerating kidnapers is the equivalent of kidnap. Yes, in the first case, both people die, just as, in the second case, both lose their freedom. Yet can anyone really fail to see the distinctions? Second, when it comes to mass murderers (most of whom are white) no one has claimed that race is a factor.

And finally, as an admitted serial killer, whether Ramirez murdered is not in dispute. The only real question remains "how many?"

Speaking of questions, I have a few of my own, which I direct in particular to liberal judges and those criminal lawyers who seem to delight in perverse pyrotechnics: How many lives does a man have to take before we deem him undeserving of life? How much of our money does he have to consume before we resolve he'll consume no more? How God-awful does a human being have to be before the American Civil Liberties Union will pronounce him beyond the pale? How many death sentences must a murderer receive before the first is carried out?

The answers to these questions are far from imminent. They, like the Night Stalker, will linger at length. Meanwhile, the Satanist who gouged out the eyes of one of his victims--was she alive or dead at the time?--watches TV, piles up pentagrams and attends to his correspondence with fans. He's apparently happy, his health is robust, and we're told he needs no medication to sleep.

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