Murder heaven

Posted: Nov 19, 2003 12:00 AM
The trial of John Muhammad was followed by the reading public as a high suspense story. In the shadow of O.J. Simpson, this is likely to happen for years and decades to come. If O.J. was found not guilty, why can't everybody be found not guilty?

But even 30 years before O.J. killed his wife and her companion, a veteran of U.S. jurisprudence opined that "it has become ridiculously hard to prove simple guilt." I once wrote on the sluggishness of modern justice by contrasting two great political crimes, seven decades separated. Leon Czolgosz shot President McKinley on Sept. 6, 1901. There was no question about Czolgosz's guilt, and seven weeks later, having been convicted, he was executed. When Sirhan Sirhan gunned down Robert Kennedy on June 5, l968, in the presence of a dozen people, it took not seven but 44 weeks to find the assailant guilty. Sirhan Sirhan was condemned to death, which is something of a laughing matter. A critic wondered out loud whether Lloyd's of London gives reduced life insurance rates for Americans sentenced to death.

The Muhammad prosecution was hampered by eccentric goings-on by the defendant. At one point he dismissed his legal team, undertaking his own defense. Then he reinstated them. Then there was talk about whether, during the period when they were out of action, they missed a critical opportunity to question a key witness for the prosecution.

What did a key witness have to add? The prosecution had the car, fitted out with a peephole for the rifle, belonging to the defendant. The car contained sophisticated navigational devices useful for pinpointing the driver's position and that of a prospective victim. The defendant had been spotted at scenes of the crimes, and his DNA on the rifle was incriminating. The junior killer who was with Muhammad is now being tried, and is manifestly the assistant executor of the 10 killings done by the sniper partnership.

But now we are in the penalty phase. It was thought to prosecute Muhammad in Virginia because Virginia has been pretty resolute in its campaign to execute criminals found guilty in the first degree. To this end, Virginia comes in right after Texas in executions. There was something in the nature of judicial attention given to the public mood after the sniper killings. What seemed an entire region of America was immobilized by the killings. In the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland, schools closed down and people stopped going to movies at night. When the killers were caught, there was a robust call for decisive action, and Virginia was thought the jurisdiction likeliest to put the killers' feet to the fire.

The appetite for justice/vengeance tends to diminish rather quickly. If a member of the group that planned the 9/11 attack were tracked down and captured tomorrow, he would probably be treated with the kind of placidity with which we reacted to the first echelon of Muslim fanatics who tried to bring down the Twin Towers in 1993. The defense in Virginia Beach did not keep us in suspense about the direction they would now take in the matter of Muhammad. So he is guilty, OK. But does he deserve to die? According to The New York Times, "(defense attorney) Shapiro said the defense planned to call witnesses to testify about Mr. Muhammad's impoverished childhood in Baton Rouge. ... As Mr. Shapiro described a scene in which Mr. Muhammad brushed his children's teeth while they were living in a homeless shelter in Tacoma, Wash., Mr. Muhammad bowed his head for several minutes."

The law, to borrow a word that seems to belong to Iraq, is a quagmire. In Los Angeles we see black athletic stars get off after murdering a wife and her companion, and in Texas, a white millionaire who, whatever the complications in the narrative, cut up his neighbor's corpse to attempt to hide it, is pronounced not guilty. Meanwhile, anyone who sees an episode of "The Sopranos" feels cheated if it doesn't display at least one murder, preferably with the victim face-to-face with the assassin. When you are looking at the man about to shoot you, it is all spookier.

There are 15,000 murders committed every year, and an enormous amount of time is spent trying to keep murderers from terminal discomforts at death houses. The disproportion in public attention to the two classes, killers and killed, continues to hobble America.