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Monday, 27 February 2012

The Death of the Life Sentence

Counter I have earlier posted about the death of capital punishment in the USA for any crime other than murder (see also this later post), Caryl Chessman being the last person to be convicted of such a crime, in 1948.* But following his eventual execution an unheard-of twelve years later, even executions for first degree murder fell sharply. As a a result, there are still people in prison who killed as long as 40 or 50 years ago. The longest case I am now aware of was that of Thomas Hagan, aka Talmage Hayer and Mujahid Halim, who, after 16 rejections by the parole board, was finally released in 2010, forty-five years after his conviction for the part he played in the assassination of Malcomb X. The two other assassins had already been out for about 15 years. Not very far behind him is Sirhan Sirhan, who has been denied parole 14 times for his role in the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. None of the other assassins were ever brought to trial. In each case, there appear to be political considerations for keeping these men behind bars for so long.

In another case, the parole board actually appears determined to take the phrase "life in prison" seriously, due to the heinous--and, admittedly, political--nature of the murder: Charles Manson, who entered Death Row in 1971 for the role he played in the murder of Sharon Tate, had not yet been executed when his sentence was changed to life; he has been denied parole 11 times. Of his co-defendants, Charles Watson has been refused parole 14 times, Leslie Van Houten 19 times, and Patricia Krenwinkel 13 times. Susan Atkins died of brain cancer in prison after 18 rejections of parole. The nearly 40 years she spent as a female in prison constituted a record in the California penal system--a record now held by Krenwinkel, as Van Houten spent some time out on bond during a 1977 retrial.

Note that all of these murderers had originally been given a death sentence, with the exception of the black-on-black killing of Malcomb X, in which they were given 20 years (thus the mid-'80 release) to life. But a sentence of life in prison for murder, originally handed down as such (and I include in that definition any sentence of 80 years or more, which by definition could be considered tantamount to life), has--[but see Update]--never resulted in any death by reason of old age ending such a sentence; in any case, no one has ever yet served even 50 years of such a sentence. In a word, it is meaningless.

The replacement of execution with an imaginary life sentence dates as far back as 1924, when Clarance Darrow talked his underage clients Leopold and Loeb into pleading guilty to murder, not because they were actually admitting their culpability, but as a means of avoiding the death sentence. He succeeded in convincing their judge that the boys could not be held responsible for the brutal premeditated murder of Bobby Franks, and they were sentenced them to the intrinsically meaningless "Life plus 99 years."  It should come as no surprise that neither defendant spent any more than 33 years behind bars for the murder.

It is possible, even likely, that one of Tate's murderers will end up serving 50 years in prison for the crime. But I venture to predict that no American criminal, sentenced after the Supreme Court lifted the ban on execution in 1976, will ever again serve over 30 years in prison for any heinous crime--and, for those committed to mental institutions for murder, I predict an even shorter timeframe.

* I should clarify that I speak here of State crimes. Forty years ago, murder was not a federal crime, and until recent decades, federal executions (for espionage, treason, and desertion) had also diminished to nothingness--with only three in the 20th century, all during wartime, and none since 1953. But since the mid-1990's, it has become fashionable to try murderers in federal court, where they are more likely to receive a death sentence--but don't always. Under this new regime, life sentences in lieu of execution may well mean just that. But this is a new system yet, so only time will tell.

Ironically, even as I wrote this post, an inmate approaching death at the University Medical Center was finishing off a sixty-five year life sentence--now considered a world record. William Heirens, like Lee Boyd Malvo, was a juvenile when the murders for which he was convicted were committed--thus allowing him the maximum potential life sentence. Heirens, who probably didn't have enough evidence against him to convict him, confessed to three murders in order to bargain himself out of a potential death sentence. Malvo, on the other hand, was convicted in court of the Beltway Sniper attacks, and guaranteed a life sentence only by a 2005 decision of the Supreme Court to deny the death sentence for any crimes committed by juveniles. This may very well result in the breaking of Heirens' record, some fifty or sixty years from now--but time will tell. The idea that a person still represents a threat to society as an eighty year old man, based on something he did as a teen, may not endure that long.

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