January 15, 2006
Ultimate Justice Delayed
By Debra Saunders
Before you ask, I'll answer your questions: Why not sentence convicted murderers to life without parole, so that they'll be locked up where they can't hurt anyone else?
Clarence Ray Allen, who is scheduled for execution at San Quentin State Prison on Tuesday, is living proof that a convicted killer can snuff out the lives of innocent people from behind bars. In 1977, Allen began serving a life sentence for the murder of his son's 17-year-old girlfriend -- her punishment for confessing to a victim robbed by the Allen gang. Allen then concocted a scheme he thought would set him free -- file an appeal, kill the witnesses and walk after a retrial with no witnesses to testify against him.
Toward that end, Allen provided fellow inmate Billy Ray Hamilton with a list of eight names of witnesses before Hamilton was paroled. In 1980, Hamilton murdered Bryon Schletewitz, 27, an Allen witness, along with two innocent teenagers (Josephine Rocha and Douglas White) who worked at the Schletewitz family store, which the Allen gang had robbed. Authorities later found the list of Allen witnesses and letters Allen sent to a son about his plan.
Juries sentenced Allen and Hamilton to death, and issued life sentences for two accomplices. "Given the nature of Allen's crimes," Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote in a ruling that denied an Allen appeal, "sentencing him to another life term would achieve none of the traditional purposes underlying punishment: incapacitation, deterrence, retribution or rehabilitation."
Why bother executing a frail old man? Allen is an old man today because he was no kid -- he was 50 -- when he ordered the murder of eight witnesses. Then he gamed the legal system so successfully that he bought himself more than two decades on Death Row. Now he's using his cynical use of the system as a reason to put off the execution.
What if he's innocent? It doesn't help Allen supporters that this week DNA tests conducted to exonerate rapist-murderer Roger K. Coleman of Virginia -- who proclaimed "An innocent man is being murdered tonight" before his execution 13 years ago -- proved that Coleman was indeed guilty.
Lance Lindsey of Death Penalty Focus believes that it is wrong to assume Allen is guilty because, as he wrote to me, "given all the questions raised about the reliability of snitch testimony in this and many other cases, it would simply be prudent to question the verdicts in such cases; especially life-and-death cases."
I can't agree. Juries can make mistakes -- that is why appellate courts should and do review capital cases. Allen had that benefit, and he faces execution because the evidence against him was overwhelming. Hamilton's list targeted witnesses who testified against Allen. Allen wrote letters about the crimes "in very, very transparent code," noted state Deputy Attorney General Ward Campbell.
As for the "snitch testimony": Why do death-penalty opponents embrace the lingo of killers? In Allen's case, Death Penalty Focus lists "two crucial witnesses at trial" who received "substantial benefits for their testimony." But those two -- among 58 witnesses -- were minor players. The two accomplices are serving life sentences, so they didn't get an undue break.
To believe Allen's claims of innocence is to choose to believe a man who boasted to his minions that he liked to kill "rats" and hence ordered the death of a teenage girl because she had a conscience. When in prison for that murder, he attempted to evade punishment by killing more people.
To believe Allen is to choose blindness. Why not declare a moratorium on the death penalty so that a commission can explore it? There already is a moratorium -- it's called the appeals process. When it takes more than two decades to carry out a sentence, a moratorium is redundant.
Besides, if executing "the lapse of many years after imposition of a death judgment renders an execution cruel and unusual" -- as Allen's lawyers argue -- then a moratorium is cruel punishment. Hence, good people should oppose it.
Copyright 2005 Creators Syndicate