25 To Life: Not Good Enough

by Amy Coughlin | 11/4/94 6:00am

Reading Kevin Walsh's Column, "18 Months For Murder" (Oct. 31), about the man who was sentences only 18 months for killing his wife, prompted me to share another example of such an injustice.

I used to be against the death penalty. Back in the days when I was an active member of Amnesty International, the death penalty seemed to be an arbitrary and overused punishment that was too often assigned to innocent people. I used to argue with those who supported capital punishment, pointing to third world countries where those in power abused their position and executed any vocal dissenter, no questions asked.

Well, we do not live in a third world country. We live in an "advanced" society with a "just" legal system. And I am no longer wholeheartedly against the death penalty.

The question I ask now is why a man who murders an innocent woman receives only 25 years to life in prison. In legal terms, this probably means he will be out on parole in ten years due to good behavior and an overcrowded prison system.

He will be free to live, walk outdoors and see his family, while the victim, having lived only 23 years, will never have a second chance. Meanwhile, her family and those who love her can only remember her smile, her laugh and her sense of humor, and pray to God that they never see the paroled prisoner on the street.

The story is such a random act of violence that it seems almost unbelieveable. Lisa had just graduated from college and was living in Manhattan with my sister, her college roommate of 4 years, and two other women. She was the manager of a Gap Kids store in the business district of NYC.

One Friday night, the 22 year-old janitor climbed into the airduct before closing and stayed in the basement until the next morning. Lisa and the manager of the Gap store next door came in at about 8 a.m. the next morning and went to their respective offices to organize for opening.

The janitor, disguised in some kind of clown make-up, came upstairs, entered Lisa's office, tied her up and gagged her, forced her to open the safe, stabbed her 26 times with a screwdriver about the neck and chest, and shot her in the mouth. He fled with a few thousand dollars in cash.

Since the horrendous crime, we've asked ourselves over and over: Why did he have to kill her? Couldn't he have just knocked her out and fled? Did he have a personal reason for being so brutal?

We will never know the answers to these questions. And to be honest, it does not really matter. Lisa is gone. My sister's college stories, a graduation film, and countless photos are all we have to remember her by.

The murderer is behind bars, but this, to me, is not good enough. No one has the right to take away another's life. And if the judicial system cannot assign the death penalty because of this very logic, we should at least know he will never walk the streets again, or be able to live as if he had never committed this heinous crime. All of us pay to keep people like him alive in prison for years, while the friends and family of the victims will mourn their death everyday.

At the trial he sat looking smug, smiling wryly whenever certain parts of the murder were described. He watched the video of the crime scene indifferently while his family muttered obscenities from the back of the courtroom.

I had never been so angry in my life. I could hardly sit still as the rage and hurt boiled up inside of me. How was my sister sitting so calmly next to me? How was Lisa's father, with tears in his eyes, surviving all of this?

I was a wreck, and inside all I wanted was for him to suffer the way Lisa did when he ruthlessly took her life. I wanted him to experience the terror she must have been feeling as he tied her up and inflicted indescribable pain on her. At that moment, I wanted him dead.

Maybe I'm a bad person for feeling this way. Maybe two wrongs do not make a right. Maybe I have been somewhat hardened by this experience.

But all I can think about now is that he lives, whether behind bars or not, and Lisa is gone forever. Who gives him the right? As in the case of the wife-killer who got 18 months, our judicial system does.

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