Death No More: Life without parole should be new standard

09:12 AM CDT on Monday, April 16, 2007

He needs killing.

For too long, our state has abided by this bit of Texas folk wisdom. Those who would kill need killing.

In theory, the ultimate punishment is imposed for the most heinous of crimes. But in practice, the death penalty has not been applied flawlessly or fairly. About 2 percent of known murderers are sentenced to death, but the fate of the accused often hinges on disparate details unrelated to the crime committed.

Wealth, race and random luck play a role in determining whether a case ends in death. Politics and geography can mean the difference between life in prison or lethal injection.

State-sanctioned death, it seems, is arbitrary.

Some of the most infamous murderers of our time sit in prison while lesser offenders are sent to die.

  • The Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway, confessed to killing at least 48 women but struck a deal to spare his life.

  • Juries sentenced Terry Nichols, accessory to the Oklahoma City bombing, and Lee Boyd Malvo, the "D.C. sniper," to life in prison.

  • Eric Rudolph, who bombed an abortion clinic, and Dennis Rader, the BTK serial killer, accepted plea agreements to avoid death sentences.

    Our justice system has developed a dual standard, alternately meting out the death penalty and life in prison in comparable cases. In fact, some who conspire to commit the same crime are punished quite differently. Consider the teenage trio convicted in the murder-for-hire of Fort Worth socialite Caren Koslow.

    Stepdaughter Kristi Koslow masterminded the gruesome killing and recruited her boyfriend and an acquaintance to carry out her plan. She was sentenced to life in prison. Brian Salter agreed to testify against his girlfriend in exchange for a life sentence. Jeffrey Dillingham exercised his right to a fair trial and was sentenced to die. Mr. Dillingham sought clemency, claiming a disparity of punishment. His request was denied, and he was executed in 2000.

    We need a consistent standard.

    But as long as capital punishment remains an option, it will be viewed as the ultimate goal, and prosecutors will face pressure to meet that goal.

    Justice demands a punishment that is fair yet revocable, one that provides a sense of finality while allowing for the fallibility of the system.

    Life without parole meets that bar.

    It's harsh. It's just. And it's final without being irreversible.

    Call it a living death.

    Thanks to a recent change in law, Texas juries now have the option of imposing life without parole in lieu of the death penalty.

    Across the country, public sentiment has begun to shift as legislatures have given juries this option.

    Last year, for the first time, Gallup Poll respondents favored life in prison without parole over the death penalty, if given the option.

    DNA exonerations have raised the specter of executing an innocent man. Questions about lethal injection methodology and mounting evidence exposing the arbitrary application of the death penalty also have helped bolster support for life without parole.

    Locking away murderers for life would save states millions of dollars on costly death penalty appeals. And there is growing support for life without parole and putting convicts to work to pay restitution to their victims' families.

    Death does not provide an added level of justice. A prison sentence that does not allow for the possibility of parole accomplishes the same objectives: protecting society from violent criminals and ensuring that every day of a murderer's life is a miserable existence.

    Our standards of punishment have evolved over time, from the gallows to firing squads, from the electric chair to lethal injection. Life without parole, essentially death by prison, should be the new standard.