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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

A Fight to the Death

May 23, 1999|MIKE DOWNEY

I listened Thursday night to a man whose brother was put to death. Convicted of a capital crime and executed, his brother, the man said, is now buried in a Massachusetts graveyard, "not far from where cannonballs were once made for George Washington."

He didn't go into his brother's innocence or guilt. He merely remembered what it was like to have someone he once loved living on death row, awaiting a moment in a week or a month or a year when his life could be snuffed out like a candle.

One day, the man said, he was able to see his brother while on business. He was working for the state of California at the time as a courier, and says he was given the task of delivering "the death warrant" to another walking dead man, Robert Alton Harris.

"I peeked," he admitted, "and I read that Robert Alton Harris 'has received the news that he is next in line for execution.' And he was in fact executed, although not until eight or nine years later."

While at the prison, the man visited his brother, who took it upon himself to formally introduce him to Harris.

He remembered thinking that day how easy it was to put "a monster's face" on someone who had committed an unforgivable crime, yet how difficult it was to remember that such a person was not a simple creature to be put out of his misery, but a human being.

Before his brother was executed, the man said he was given instructions on how to witness it. His brother told him not to expect any eye contact, any acknowledgment at all, because he did not want to be "looking around" during the last moments of his life.

"Now," the man said, "my brother is in a cold grave in the state of Massachusetts, wearing the face of a monster. Except to me, and to the people in this room.

"Thank you for humanizing him."

*

He was speaking at a dinner sponsored by Death Penalty Focus of California, an organization committed to the abolition of capital punishment.

The group is at great odds with the governor. The president of its board of directors, actor Mike Farrell, minces no words on this score, bluntly speaking out about "what a coward Gray Davis is."

It is a thou-shalt-not-kill crowd locked in mortal combat with an eye-for-an-eye crowd, engaged in a war of words that will continue as long as our prison populations swell and our hearts contradict our minds.

There isn't a day that goes by in America without a bereaved relative seeking "justice" by longing to revel in the ultimate satisfaction of having a killer killed.

I succumb to this instinct myself. While enduring the vivid details of a recent mass murder case, then personally receiving correspondence and calls from victims' loved ones, all eager for their pounds of flesh, I soon began to feel as they did, practically salivating for the convicted man to get a taste of his own medicine.

Some say all the rationalization in the world won't matter the day something happens to you or to one of yours.

But then there are people like Linda and Peter Biehl, whose daughter, Amy, born in Santa Monica, educated at Stanford and eager to fight for human rights, was murdered on Aug. 25, 1993, in South Africa at age 26.

Her parents chose to forgo vengeance. They saw it as counterproductive, choosing, as was mentioned Thursday when actress Alfre Woodard presented them an award for humanitarian work, to believe that the last thing their daughter would have wanted was for some other soul to deliberately be put to death.

Plus, there is one other element that cannot be easily dismissed in the killing of killers.

That is the possibility--often quite a remote possibility--of killing the wrong man.

*

Lawrence Marshall, a law professor from Northwestern University, was one of Death Penalty Focus' honorees Thursday night. He is the man who got Gary Gauger off death row after eight months there, proving him innocent of murdering his parents. He vindicated Rolando Cruz, who spent 10 years under a death sentence before another man confessed to killing a 10-year-old girl, which DNA evidence confirmed.

Yet another Northwestern professor, David Protess, recently cleared Anthony Porter after 17 years on death row for murders he did not commit, causing Illinois to put its death penalty laws under review.

Cases like these persuade Mike Farrell and his organization that eventually California must do the same: end capital punishment.

"Gov. Davis says he can't," Farrell says, "for the sake of the rights of a victim's family. But if you think that way, don't you just create another victim's family?"

Some will agree. Some won't.

And some from both sides will be left thinking of cold graves, and of people they loved to death.

*

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com.

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