John Allen Muhummad is dead, paying the ultimate penalty for his killing spree seven years ago. I have often struggled with the morality of the death penalty, but not in this case. If ever a case demanded the death penalty, this one did. Ten people were murdered at random and three others wounded, for no apparent reason. Islamic Jihad was the stated justification but I believe the killers got a thrill out of the murders, as well as a feeling of power.
I first became aware of the death penalty as a boy, back in 1960 when the state of California executed Caryl Chessman, the so-called "Red Light Bandit." Chessman was a criminal with a long record. He never killed anyone, nor did he try to. What he did do was rob and then rape the female robbery victims. Back in those days California had its own version of "the Little Lindberg Law," making kidnapping with bodily harm a capital offense. Chessman moved one of his victims, a 17 year old girl, a short distance before sexually assaulting her and that act alone made him eligible for the gas chamber.
Chessman's victim, one Mary Alice Meza, later went insane and spent the rest of her life in a mental institution. She wasn't dead, but she may as well have been. However, various psychiatrists stated that Meza had mental problems before the assault and that her subsequent mental illness was not a result of it.
In 1954, Chessman wrote a book of his memoirs called Cell 2455 Death Row, which was later made into a movie. The book and the film portrayed Chessman as a victim of mistaken identity and inflamed public opinion in his favor. However, he was guilty; not only was he a successful robber and rapist, his book proved he was pretty good con man too. Later, California repealed its Little Lindberg law and commuted related death sentences to life imprisonment. However, Chessman for some reason wasn't included in those commuted. Under today's law, he would not have been sentenced to death or even life imprisonment.
Chessman's attorneys filed many appeals, obtaining stays of execution eight times, in some cases by just minutes before the scheduled execution. His last stay was granted after he had been strapped into the gas chamber, with cyanide gas already filling the death chamber.
Whether or not Chessman deserved to die isn't as clear cut as Muhammad's case, and so I was conflicted about the death penalty for many years. Killers like Muhammad, however, restore my faith in the rectitude of capital punishment.
You can read more about Chessman here.
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