The Wrong Penalty

Boston Globe [Boston MA]
September 2, 2003

AS A FORMER correction officer, state Senator Guy Glodis worries not only about inmate safety in the aftermath of the brutal prison murder of defrocked priest John J. Geoghan but also the safety of prison personnel. So the Worcester Democrat last week filed a bill that would reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts for convicted murderers who kill again while in prison. He said there should be consequences for such criminals, and he's right -- just not the kind he proposes. Prison murders are rare. Some studies even show that on average, people serving life sentences are better behaved than those confined for shorter periods. But the issue raises troubling questions: How can a murder produce no punishment beyond the life sentence the killer is already serving? And what is to prevent him from killing again? The death penalty might answer both these questions, but it still would be wrong.

Sanctions within a prison can be harsh and should include extended isolation and surveillance for those who commit violent attacks on guards or fellow inmates. At some point, incorrigible prisoners sacrifice even basic rights to concerns for others' safety.

Imposing the death penalty for prison murder, however, would run an additional risk of executing the wrong people, because prison life can generate frame-ups.

Understandably, emotions are still raw more than a week after the gruesome end to the life of the priest who was at the epicenter of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Joseph L. Druce, the convicted murder accused in his strangling death, took the law into his own hands and robbed Geoghan's alleged victims who still had claims pending of their day in court.

But the solution is not to reinstate the death penalty. As The Pilot, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston, correctly noted Friday, this would "compound tragedy with another tragedy." The paper warned death penalty proponents not to use the Geoghan murder to advance their agenda.

In a telephone interview, Glodis said lawmakers need to renew the debate over the death penalty. But debating such crucial legislation when emotions are running high is not wise. The better debate would be how best to control violent inmates and to ensure that vulnerable people, including convicted child molesters, are segregated from potential attackers and kept of out of dangerous situations through proper surveillance and supervision.

This story ran on page A12 of the Boston Globe on 9/2/2003.


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