In Real Life, a Power We Shouldn't Have

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, May 17, 2005

BOSTON -- At one point last Friday at least nine Connecticut state troopers blocked the road leading to what amounted to a state-assisted suicide. The victim, if he could be called that, was Michael Bruce Ross, a serial killer, guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt of raping and murdering eight young women and girls. He is what is known as a "volunteer." He had chosen to be executed.

The state complied. And somehow, maybe because Connecticut Yankees never lose their touch or maybe because executions are like riding a bike -- you never forget how -- the state easily picked up where it had long ago left off. Ross was the first person to be executed there in 45 years. New Hampshire, the only other New England state with the death penalty, has not had an execution since 1939.

I do not mourn Ross, who went to his death adorned with several psychiatric diagnoses (malignant narcissist, sexual sadist, etc.) but was, in plain truth, a beast who needed to be caged or "put down." I would have preferred the former, not -- mind you -- out of any concern for Ross but for all "the others" who might follow, one or two of them undoubtedly innocent.

Because Ross was a murderer and a rapist whose crimes were gruesome, a word must be said about his victims and their families. The horror of what was done to them has to be acknowledged. Most of us belong to the community of parents. It is both insufficient and trite to say we feel their pain. We know enough to know we can never feel their pain.

But "closure," the shoe that supposedly drops when a killer is executed, is a chimera. It is the glib creation of TV shrinks, and it gussies up the word "revenge." Revenge, though, is real and something we can all understand. It may not be pretty, but it is basic, initially immensely satisfying (at least in the movies) -- and if that is what you want out of capital punishment, then I cannot tell you otherwise. I can only tell you that its compensations are fleeting. When revenge has been exacted, when closure is supposedly upon us, memory still will not fade and the hole in one's life will not be filled. The past is immutable. The present will not change it.

Whatever the case, no execution is a private act. Every time the state executes someone, it threatens the rest of us. The power to take life is too awesome to be given to government. It's not just that it has been abused throughout history, it's also that governments are incompetent at it. After all, the same government that assured us that Iraq bristled with weapons of mass destruction also guarantees that there is nary a slip between the cup and the lip when it comes to executions. Lately DNA testing has given the lie to that. Mistakes are still being made. Sorry.

On television, which is where most Americans spend their lives, mistakes rarely happen. On the crime shows, some doll wearing latex gloves finds a microscopic speck and sends it to a lab that looks like Martha Stewart's kitchen. Then a technician wearing an Armani T-shirt puts it into a high-tech Vegematic and gets the results back right after the commercial break. In real life, though, consider the case of Christa Worthington. She was murdered on Cape Cod in 2002. Her alleged killer was recently arrested based on DNA evidence. It took the cops two years to collect the sample. It took the state more than a year to analyze it.

Or consider Virginia. Gov. Mark Warner, a prudent man, has ordered an audit of 150 cases in which DNA was a factor in conviction. He did this after the state's crime lab -- one of the best in the nation -- apparently botched the results in a case that led to a murder conviction. That's not TV. That's life.

It would be wrong to say mistakes happen frequently. It would be just as wrong to say they never happen. They happen because lab technicians are sometimes distracted, sometimes rushing to take an early lunch and sometimes just plain inept. They happen, in other words, because human beings are central to the process and we are, I am here to tell you, a bit shy of perfect.

Good riddance to Michael Bruce Ross. He killed and he was killed in return -- a facile symmetry that seems both satisfying and self-contained but merely continues the tragedy. Ross killed innocent people. Sooner or later, we will discover, so have we.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company