Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ralph De La Cruz: Turnpike murders renew death penalty question

Ralph De La Cruz | Columnist
March 19, 2009
The question of guilt has been answered in the federal courtroom in West Palm Beach.

A jury already has found Ricardo Sanchez Jr. and Daniel Troya guilty of the cold-blooded assassination of a family alongside Florida's Turnpike in St. Lucie County.

But that may be an easier conclusion to reach than whether the taking of two more lives is justified for the death of four.

Capital punishment is an issue that many of us have grappled with, that evokes almost as much passion as abortion. Death, in any form, is never easy to argue for or justify. It's personal and painful. Perhaps as it should be.

I lost my commitment to nonviolence Feb. 23, 1996, while chatting with a bitter, broken man inside a Winnebago parked outside a motel in Marin County, Calif.

I had just witnessed the execution of William Bonin, who was known as the Freeway Killer. It's thought that Bonin may have killed as many as 36 boys and young men.

Actually, "killed" is too antiseptic for what Bonin did. He would grab boys — the youngest was 12, most were 14, 15, 16 — throw them in his van and drug them. Then, he'd sodomize the victim as he strangled him. The bodies were thrown out of Bonin's van as he drove along Southern California's highways.

After being caught, Bonin told police that if they hadn't caught him, he would have continued torturing and killing.

Bonin confessed to 21 of the abductions, rapes and murders, and was found guilty of 14 of them. He was the first person executed in California by lethal injection.

The man I was speaking with in the Winnebago was the only person to have survived Bonin. He was being assaulted when police arrested the homicidal psychopath.

He told a reporter he wouldn't attend the execution, opting instead to drink champagne and blast the rock standard Highway to Hell as Bonin took his last breaths.

As soon as Bonin turned blue and I filed my column, I went looking for him. It took an hour, but I found his Winnebago.

"So," I asked the man as we sipped champagne, "does his execution bring you closure? Do you feel safer? Relieved?"

"No," he answered. "But at least when they're sitting around playing cards now, I won't be the punch line to his jokes."

It had been reported that Bonin had a long-running card game going in prison with two other serial killers. The three were thought to have killed more than 100 people.

That's when I changed my mind about the death penalty.

For my entire life I had been the one who argued I didn't want anybody killed on my behalf. That it was more costly to execute someone, because of the extensive appeals, than keep him imprisoned. That a life in prison could be more punishment than dying.

All that began to fade during Bonin's extremely respectful execution. By the time the champagne in my cup was gone, so was my opposition to capital punishment.

I came to the conclusion that in cases where there's absolutely no doubt someone has brutalized and murdered, I'm fine with ending the murderer's life.

I'm not talking about Texas-type zip-zapping. The Lone Star State has killed 435 people since 1976. A scary pace considering that 120 Death Row inmates have been released because of things such as DNA evidence and improper legal procedures. And that in 2003, Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted the death sentences of 167 Death Row inmates after Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions found patterns of inequality based on class and race.

Even here in Florida, where 67 people have been executed since 1976, then-Gov. Jeb Bush suspended executions at the end of 2006 over concerns that there may be problems with the lethal-injection procedures.

California continues under a court order suspending the kind of execution I saw, also because of procedural concerns.

So, I understand how torn the federal court jury must be as it listens to arguments about the fate of Sanchez and Troya this week.

It already found the two guilty. But how sure is this jury, really? And does this crime reach the level of brutality that each of us measures in trying to assess what merits a public killing?

I'm glad it's not my call.

If jurors choose death, it will be only the fourth federal execution since the feds broke a moratorium in 2001 with the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. The last federal execution before McVeigh's was March 15, 1963.

And it would be sort of a South Florida redux. The U.S. government first executed someone Aug. 17, 1927, hanging James Aldermon ... at the Broward County Click here for restaurant inspection reports Jail in Fort Lauderdale Is your Fort Lauderdale restaurant clean? - Click Here..

Ralph De La Cruz's column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in the Local section and in Sunday Lifestyle. He can be reached at, 561-243-6522 or 954-356-4727.

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