Every so often, I edge closer to the death-penalty camp. A particularly hideous crime occurs and the part of me that wants vengeance cries out.
Then something happens as it did last week in Sacramento -- when the fallacies and hypocrisies of the death-penalty argument leap forth -- and I scamper back to the 30% minority opposed to capital punishment.
The news was that four middle-aged former soldiers of the Symbionese Liberation Army pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for the 1975 shotgun killing of Myrna Opsahl, a wife and mother of four. Emily Montague, known then as Emily Harris, admitted to having pulled the trigger, although she said it went off accidentally. It's worth noting that for years she denied even shooting.
The four were revolutionaries dedicated to the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. The Opsahl murder occurred during a bank robbery. A year before, the SLA had kidnapped Patty Hearst.
Quite a crew, huh? With her dossier -- revolutionary, kidnapper, bank robber, killer -- do you have any doubt what punishment U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft or any state attorney general would be arguing for Montague had the crime occurred last week?
There's the rub. The murder occurred a quarter-century ago, giving them time to redirect their lives. By all accounts, the four former revolutionaries (a fifth was arrested last week in South Africa) built productive, law-abiding lives.
In legal terms, it may have been hard to convict in so old a case, but that isn't the point. The point is, Montague admitted to having pulled the trigger in a situation that, under our prevailing opinions of people who do such things, would have won her an execution date.
She would have been deemed unfit to live in civil society. Had she been executed, we would never have known the truth. The truth, which we now can verify, is that she became the opposite.
Montague, now 55, faces eight years in prison.
"There was no reason to pursue any lengthier prison time," said Mrs. Opsahl's son, Jon, who had kept his mother's memory and the case alive over the years. Mrs. Opsahl's husband, 76, said he had "no hard feelings" for the former SLA members.
"One of the problems with the death penalty is precisely this," says Denise Gragg, an Orange County public defender. "Most people engaged in that kind of behavior age out of it."
Most killers are men under 30 who often change, Gragg says. "That's why it's so tragic that we execute people 15 to 20 years down the road, because we almost always are executing someone different than the one who committed the crime."
In Emily Montague's case, the shotgun slayer became a computer consultant.
Eight years in prison for a murder is hardly excessive, not even 27 years after the fact. I am arguing that a system that would have declared her a throwaway a generation ago now eats those words.
So, life goes on. For some. Last week, as the SLA members copped their pleas, the U.S. Supreme Court restored the execution order for a man convicted of a 1982 robbery and murder in Orange County. The court said John Visciotti should die for his crime, committed when he was about 25, a bit younger than Montague was.
Different case, different details.
Just curious -- does a killer's heart still tick in Visciotti?
Dana Parsons' e-mail is email@example.com.