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Suicide by State Execution?

Killing Killers Who Want to Die

by DAVE LINDORFF

You really know the state killers have lost it when they call for the death penalty for someone who was just trying to kill himself in the first place.

That’s what prosecutors are doing in the case of Juan Manuel Alvarez, the 25-year-old Californian who apparently parked his SUV on the tracks of a Los Angeles commuter train line in order to commit suicide.

Alvarez, according to news reports, lost his nerve and left the vehicle as the train approached, and escaped injury, but the resulting crash, which derailed the train, ended up killing 11 riders and injuring many others.

Death penalty aficionados, including L.A. County’s vote-hungry District Attorney, see killing Alvarez as the logical punishment for his horrible misdeed. Under the Old Testament eye-for-an-eye logic of state killers in this great Christian Nation, it’s kill and be killed.

But what exactly is the punishment when you kill someone who was trying to do that to himself anyway? If anything, after causing so much suffering and pain and loss of life, Alvarez probably wants to die more than he did before the tragedy. In any event, he certainly wanted to die badly enough to try to do himself in. All the state will accomplish by injecting him with their deadly cocktail of toxins at the end of a high-profile legal process and millions of dollars in legal costs will be helping him to do what he didn’t have the courage to do himself.

Hurray for the death penalty!

In fact, many of the 4000 or so people currently on death row are there because they wanted, after a fashion, to die.

For all the right-wing blather about how without a death penalty, some killers will eventually return to society to kill again, it is arguable that more people have been slain and will be slain because the death penalty tempts weak-willed people to kill as a way of ensuring that they themselves will be punished with death.

Leaving aside whether it is even right to punish-particularly to punish with death– someone who is so whacked out that he tries to kill himself by parking in front of a moving train, what point is there in killing him for doing it? What he really needs is psychiatric help.

Naturally, someone who commits such a crime, causing even if unintentionally, the deaths of nearly a dozen innocent people, needs to be punished in some fitting way. And society needs to be protected from a person capable of such an outrage. That’s what prison confinement should be for.

But killing him, while certainly protecting society from any future idiocies by Mr. Alvarez, may well encourage more such kamakazi acts by other disturbed individuals like him.

Far better to lock Mr. Alvarez away for a long time, so that others of a similar mind may ponder the idea of spending years behind bars, without so much as a rope to hang themselves with.

That’s unlikely to satisfy the bloodlust of the death penalty crowd, but it sure makes a lot more sense all things considered.

Post-script: The nasty truth is that most prosecutors, while craven, are not stupid. Like Philadelphia’s D.A. Lynn Abraham, who nearly always opts for the death penalty in murder cases, they know that by asking for death at the outset of a case, even when they know they haven’t got a chance of getting a death sentence, they get a much more pro-prosecution jury because they can screen off all those who express qualms about voting for death. And if that’s true, then the corrollary is also true: people on death row were put there by the least reliable and most biased trials possible–exactly the opposite of what should be happening. But that’s another story for another column. To read more about it go to: The Death Penalty’s Other Victims (Salon magazine, Jan. 2, 2001)

DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled "This Can’t be Happening!" is published by Common Courage Press. Information about both books and other work by Lindorff can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net.

He can be reached at: dlindorff@yahoo.com