Steven Oken is scheduled to be executed this week in Maryland. It will be the first time the state has used capital punishment since 1998. For most people, the issues surrounding the death penalty are relatively abstract. But not for us. Our daughter, Shannon, was murdered. Yet we oppose the death penalty.
Our daughter was attacked and killed while alone in her Philadelphia apartment on May 7, 1998. Almost four years later, Troy Graves was arrested in Fort Collins, Colo., on unrelated sexual assault charges. DNA evidence linked him to a series of sexual assaults in Philadelphia and to Shannon's murder. The Philadelphia prosecutor immediately announced her intention to seek the death penalty, even though we publicly opposed it.
The death penalty is often cited as a deterrent to crime, but in our case, most of the assaults and perhaps even our daughter's murder could have been prevented if the Philadelphia police had only done their job.
Other women -- all young, white and living alone in the same area of Philadelphia -- were assaulted before and after Shannon's murder, but police were slow to link the cases, largely because many sexual assaults had not been classified as crimes to reduce reported crime rates in the city. This included two of the first assaults Graves committed, a Philadelphia Inquirer investigation discovered.
The Inquirer story led to a city investigation. Ultimately, it was found that police had classified 2,000 reported sexual assaults as non-crimes, 60 percent of which should have been classified as either sexual assaults or rapes.
As many as 100 assailants are in jail today because police reopened the misclassified cases. More criminals likely would have been apprehended if the cases initially had been pursued. That would be deterrence. Yet as far as we know, no officers involved in the downgrading of sexual assaults lost their jobs, were demoted or even lost a day's pay.
Another argument proponents of the death penalty use concerns "closure," but that is wrongheaded too. Graves ultimately was sentenced to life in prison without parole, and because he did not face execution for his crimes, he was willing to confess his guilt in all the cases brought against him.
We got to know all but a couple of Graves's victims, and almost all were thankful to have been spared a trial. Not one said that she thought we were wrong in taking the stand we took on Graves's sentence.
To an extent, closure is about getting things done. By July 31, 2002, roughly 100 days after Graves's arrest, all legal proceedings in this string of cases were completed. If Graves had faced a death penalty charge, that almost certainly would have meant lengthy trials in both Colorado and Philadelphia. If a death sentence had ensued, his appeals process likely would have dragged on for years.
Oken committed the crimes for which he is sentenced to die back in 1987. Anyone who has seen the survivors of his victims feels sorrow for the pain they have had to bear as the case has worn on. But the death penalty holds little promise of helping survivors deal with their emotional damage. The victim remains lost to them whether the killer lives or dies.
Most people who witnessed the execution of Timothy J. McVeigh for his part in bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, for example, were terribly disappointed by the sneer he gave them in his last conscious moments. They also felt that his passing seemed too easy.
Nor is the death penalty just revenge for cruel crimes. It often is applied unequally on the basis of the race or ethnicity of the victims or their economic circumstances. Although Oken is an exception in that he is white, our white daughter was killed by an African American -- the racial combination that most often leads to the imposition of the death penalty.
In Maryland, where we have lived for years and where our daughter grew up, 83 percent of all current death row cases originated in Baltimore County. The prosecuting attorney there pursues the death penalty in a much larger proportion of cases than other Maryland prosecutors do.
We have been told that our stance on the death penalty is expensive, that Shannon's assailant will be a burden on taxpayers for decades. But the Maryland Department of Legislative Services has estimated that the cost of taking death penalty cases through the system to finality is three times higher on average than the cost of locking someone up for 40 years. Even if that weren't the case, if the issue boils down to economics, shouldn't anyone in jail for life be put to death? Can economics be the context in which we consider the appropriateness of taking someone's life?
Our experience suggests that the use of the death penalty in this country is not serving its intended goals. No matter how hard we try to make sure we have the most stringent rules for imposing the death penalty, it is still a process managed by people. Having now met three free men who served nearly 30 years of their collective lives on death row before being exonerated, we are mindful that the rightful application of this sentence is far from perfect.
One tragedy of the death penalty is that it turns society's perspective away from the victim and creates an outpouring of support for those who have perpetrated a crime. The meetings now being held in Maryland in search of ways to stop Oken's execution focus on him, not on his victims.
We need to deal with violent offenders in a way that takes them out of circulation quickly, secures our safety and helps survivors to heal. But it also must be a way that leaves us on higher moral ground than the death penalty does.
-- Sylvester J. and Vicki A. Schieber