Failing the Test on Capital Punishment

By Jeffrey Page

With one glaring exception, I’ve opposed capital punishment ever since I read Clarence Darrow’s autobiography in high school. Darrow, among others, has been credited with the observation: Hate the crime, not the criminal.

What I’ve learned about myself is that my mercy has limits, and that I find that in many cases I hate the crime and the criminal.

I veered from my moral comfort zone in 1995 when I saw a picture of Baylee Almon that came over the AP wire in the newsroom in Hackensack. Remember Baylee? She was the little girl – dead in the Oklahoma City bombing – being cradled in the arms of a burly fireman. She was 1 year old. Her face was pointed away from the camera, giving her a Christ-like appearance – like the vision of Jesus in Salvador Dali’s famous painting of the Crucifixion.

Her head was covered in blood. There was a bad gash on her right arm. It was hard to determine what she was wearing except for her bloodied white socks. Her legs, lifeless, dangled over the fireman’s left arm. I was not supposed to hate the criminal, but I hated him passionately.

Later there was a conviction. Timothy McVeigh would be put to death, and I wrote at the time that while I wouldn’t take joy in doing it, I would press the plunger of the hypodermic to carry out the sentence.

I concede that my reaction to McVeigh’s barbarism was emotional, not based in reason or compassion. Compassion? For McVeigh? Aside from Baylee’s, there were 167 more graves to dig in Oklahoma City. I justified my reaction to McVeigh and his crime by directing every ounce of my compassion to Baylee’s mother, to that fireman, and to Baylee. If not for McVeigh, Baylee Almon would now be 15 years old.

So I flunked McVeigh’s test. Once, I believed that capital punishment is never justified, if for no other reason than its irreversibility. And then, with McVeigh, I concluded that sometimes it is quite justified. Soon, I returned to that comfort zone, hoping that never again would I be so tested.

But now there are new tests, and in at least one instance, I’m failing again.

There is the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man who acknowledges that he planned the attacks on America of Sept. 11. The result of his operation: 2,976 people dead, not including the hijackers. He too could face a death sentence if convicted.

So what does a restored death penalty opponent such as myself think?

I recall the catalog of Mohammed’s savagery. The hijackings; the slashings with box cutters; the unimaginable terror aboard the three planes being flown into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, and the one plane crashing in that wretched field in Shanksville; people looking out their office windows and seeing a plane coming at them; the crashes; the fires; people jumping out of high windows to escape the flames; the prayers on the run; the rush to get down the stairwells; the buildings coming down; people still in the towers falling to their deaths, the panic in the streets as people ran for their lives.

I think about another baby, this one named Christine Lee Hanson, 2½ years old, who was flying to California with her parents Peter and Susan Hanson aboard United Airlines Flight 175. This was the plane that was flown into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Mercy for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed should he be convicted and sentenced to death? By the very extent of his cruelty and evil, mercy is not possible. I would press the plunger.

Despite that thought, I will, in this season of giving, write a check to the Innocence Project (100 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10011), whose noble work in freeing wrongly convicted people – in both capital and noncapital cases – is exemplary.

I don’t like the moral position I find myself in. I still oppose the death penalty – usually – but I’m not as comfortably absolutist as in the years before McVeigh.

Jeffrey can be reached at


3 Responses to “Failing the Test on Capital Punishment”

  1. Lucznikowska Says:

    Did you lose someone in 9/11? Was it Christina and her parents? I did. My emotions have not subsided for my young, bright, promising 37-year-old nephew.

    But I can still think. You seem to have something else underlying, distorting your judgment, and it is emotional. I don’t know what it is, but justice is best served cold.

    I don’t want the death penalty for KSM and crew. I want them to be justly tried, as an indicator to ourselves and the rest of the world that we can attempt to correct our transgressions. Their torture does not expiate their crime, but killing them will only create more terrorists. The best outcome of the trials that I can imagine for these self-confessed killers is a full life in small cells, with many decades to mull over their crimes, and think …and think.

  2. HackFlak Says:

    I’m confused here, my friend.

    How does one call oneself “anti-death penalty” when one simply reserves for oneself the right to decide when the plunger shall be pushed?

    It simply means you are a death penalty supporter, albeit one who wants the personal right to decide when it shall be imposed.

    To me, that is scary: allowing you rather than society to decide who shall b executed … even before the defendant is tried.

  3. LeeAgain Says:

    By pushing the plunger you would inadvertently create a bond between yourself and the newly deceased: You would both be killers. And, though you might be bent upon destroying that life, you might well be creating a martyr.

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