aren’t any black serial killers.” This refrain was on the lips
of most Americans in the fall of 2002 before two suspects were
apprehended in the Washington, D.C. area sniper shootings.
Black people are so accustomed to being suspect, to being thought
of as the worst, that we hang on to any and every truth or
half-truth which absolves us of wrong doing. Anyone who was
not disposed to racial pride didn’t object either because persons
with the dubious title “serial killer expert” told us
that black people were not among their subjects of study.
turns out that as in every other realm blacks who are
are ignored in
America. Black killers and their victims, who are also
likely to be black, don’t merit attention. It didn’t
help that endless and ultimately useless news stories
that the suspect
was a white man in a white truck. The arrest of two black
men in a blue car came as quite a surprise.
can’t allow the sensationalism and shallowness that inevitable
result from coverage of criminal cases to dissuade us from
asking an important question. How should our society treat
the worst among us? John Muhammad and Lee Malvo certainly fit
into the category of the worst. For weeks their ten-victim
killing spree terrorized the Washington, D.C. area and thanks
to the wonders of 24-hour cable news, the entire nation as
well. Muhammad’s trial has come to an end while Malvo’s jury
is being chosen. I refer only to their Virginia trials. The
two are also accused of murders that took place in Maryland,
Louisiana, Alabama, Washington state and Arizona.
is worth noting that they were arrested in Maryland and could
have been tried there. But Attorney General John Ashcroft personally
intervened to bring the two to justice in Virginia. Maryland
has a death penalty statute that is rarely used. They just don’t
execute people often enough to please Ashcroft, a man who couldn’t
stand the sight of a marble breast on a statue and demanded that
it be covered. Maryland also does not allow for the execution
What is a bible quoting yet blood thirsty prosecutor to do? Move
the defendant next door to Virginia where the citizenry are less
afraid to pull the switch, even for defendants whose ages end
with the word teen.
most shameful aspect of Malvo’s treatment took place in Virginia.
His attorneys repeatedly requested permission to see their client
but were denied access. Malvo asked for his lawyers and said
they had instructed him not to speak to police. His interrogators
craftily told him that he could see his lawyers but proceeded
to question him until they got a taped confession. This treatment
would be bad enough for an adult but is very troubling in the
treatment of a juvenile.
like Muhammad, is eligible for the death penalty if convicted.
Prospective jurors who expressed reservations about the death
penalty were excluded from
consideration. These exclusions are standard operating procedure
in every jurisdiction that allows for the death penalty. It
is well known that those who favor the death penalty are more
likely to presume defendants guilty. We end up with a system
ensuring that only the vengeful will sit in judgment of capital
case defendants. We know from the increased numbers of exonerations
in capital cases that the odds are against defendants even
when evidence points to reasonable doubt.
anti-death penalty arguments may be all well and good in a vacuum,
but the evidence points overwhelmingly to Muhammad and Malvo’s
guilt. Even a member of the Malvo defense team, Craig S. Cooley,
said during opening arguments, “We are not suggesting to you
that they got the wrong
man.” Does it matter that he was coerced into confessing
if he pulled the trigger and committed murder?
matters to those who truly care about justice for all. If we
say that lies and trickery are permitted to get the guilty
we then allow it for the innocent as well. It is easy to be
seduced by the outrage surrounding verdicts for wealthy defendants
such as O.J. Simpson and Robert Durst. Although they were acquitted
they are still believed to be guilty by the general public.
Very few defendants have the resources, a fancy way of saying
money, to present a strong defense. Whether guilty or innocent
they are likely to be convicted. The prosecution always has
the upper hand and all too often use their power improperly
in order to win convictions. Advances in DNA evidence have
freed the innocent, but so has the exposure of instances of
false testimony, bad lawyers and judicial and police
see young Lee Malvo facing the death penalty after Gary Ridgway,
the Green River Killer, escaped the death penalty when he confessed
to 48 murders. The treatment of the two cases exemplifies everything
that is wrong with the death penalty in America. It is indeed
imposed in an arbitrary and capricious manner. Ridgway killed
more often than Muhammad and Malvo but will get a life sentence
for his crimes. Not surprisingly, the biggest factor in the
imposition of the death penalty is the race of the victim. The
murder victim in 80% of capital cases is white, although whites
are victims in only 50%
is very clear that as Governor Ryan of Illinois bravely decided,
we should no longer tinker with the machinery of death. The
death penalty should be abolished. It serves no use in the
21st century. The need to coerce confessions, move
trials to execution in friendly jurisdictions, and decide who
among the guilty should be executed is too fraught with the
likelihood of error and misconduct. Injustice is certain to
America remains mired in Gulf War II it should not be forgotten
that John Muhammad was a veteran of the first Gulf War. Timothy
McVeigh was a Gulf War veteran. Three soldiers stationed at
Fort Benning, Georgia were recently arrested for murdering
a “buddy” because his misbehavior at a strip club got all of
them ejected. He was stabbed and his body was burned and left
in the woods. He and his battalion mates had returned from
Iraq just days
many McVeighs and Muhammads are being produced in Iraq right
now? How many times does society have to deal with the effects
of damaged and angry men returning home after being trained
to kill? As Timothy McVeigh said of killing on the battle
field, “After the first time it got easy.” The same can be
said of our misguided love for vengeance in the criminal justice
I stated in my October 23, 2003 column, I was acquainted with
one of the sniper case victims, Ken Bridges.
Freedom Rider column appears weekly in . Ms.
Kimberley is a freelance writer living in New York City. She
can be reached via e-Mail at [email protected].
You can read more of Ms. Kimberley's writings at http://freedomrider.blogspot.com/