After the guilty verdicts were returned in the Catherine Fuller murder case last week, I called for the reinstitution of the death penalty in the District.
Now, for a follow-up based on the reactions I received.
Several persons who live in Fuller's neighborhood in Northeast Washington called to support the death penalty, saying they had been robbed and burglarized, and had friends and acquaintances who had been maimed and murdered.
They said they didn't want their names used because they lived in fear and expected retaliation for speaking out.
The stories they had to tell were horrendous. Many of the people who committed crimes in their neighborhood were never caught, and those who were apprehended and even convicted were soon set free and returned to the neighborhood to continue their carnage.
They spoke of utter frustration with the criminal justice system, which appeared to them to be some kind of a joke. And they were too afraid to do anything about it.
Juxtapose their concerns with those of another group that wrote letters: the whites who live in nicer parts of the city.
They denounce the death penalty as a state-sponsored crime, and claim that putting criminals to death makes a criminal out of society.
So, on one hand, it appears that we have people in the city who take a realistic view of how our criminal justice system actually is, while on the other hand are people with an idealistic view of what it should be.
Of course, the lines aren't as starkly drawn as this. Indeed, there are blacks who oppose the death penalty and whites who support it. But the reaction from people in this city suggests that feelings about the death penalty are related to one's chances of being a victim of a violent crime.
There is little wonder then that many polls show most blacks favoring capital punishment: They are most likely to be victims of violent crimes.
But what is also striking about the people against the death penalty is that they don't seem to feel outraged by Fuller's death. Black people who live in her neighborhood speak of her slaying as if it had happened to someone they knew -- like their mother.
People against the death penalty are more concerned with how they would feel if society took someone's life. Thus, I can only wonder how they would feel if -- in fact -- their mothers had been victims of violent crime.
It is true that David Clarke, chairman of the D.C. City Council, who was stabbed on the street at night, and the mother of Stephanie Roper, a Prince George's County college student who was raped, murdered and set afire, have spoken out against the death penalty. But I believe these are rare exceptions to a rule of human behavior.
I think brutal people should be dealt with in a brutal manner, and that there should be appropriate sentences for people convicted of less serious crimes.
Given some of the causes of crime -- from severe unemployment to broken homes -- serious commitments must also be made to alleviate these conditions as part of improving criminal justice.
Clearly, there are people convicted of crimes for which prison sentences would only make them better criminals. There should be more creative alternative sentencing. We need to create this middle ground because now, in this city, there are only two narrow extremes: sending a person to prison or setting him free -- for some criminals, often the same thing.
It is possible to improve our criminal justice system, but it must be based on the needs of the entire community.
For those in Fuller's neighborhood, and others where crime is a serious problem, the death penalty sends a message that anyone who goes around killing black people risks being executed. It is a way to make people understand that black lives are valued -- which seems to be a problem for black criminals in this city.
After all, they don't do these things in Georgetown.