I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Jimmy Lee Gray is a strong argument in favour of capital punishment. So too are John Straffen, Graeme Burton, and many others. All of them were convicted of murder, got out of custody, and killed again.
As death penalty advocates are quick to point out, if they had been executed for their initial killings several other people would still be alive. One website lists 59 convicted murderers in the U.S. who killed again between the mid-1960s and mid-1990s.
Jimmy Lee Gray
No tears were shed in September 1983 when Jimmy Lee Gray was gassed in the state prison at Parchman, Mississippi, even though it was a gruesome business.
Not even Gray’s mother wept; she had earlier written to Governor William Winter and the Mississippi Supreme Court pleading that her son not be spared, saying that he “deserved to die.”
In 1968, Gray had murdered his 16-year-old girlfriend. He served seven years in an Arizona prison for that crime before he was paroled over the objection of the judge who sentenced him.
He was not long out of prison before he raped and murdered three-year-old Deressa Jean Seales in June 1976. The crime drew condemnation from all quarters in the U.S.
Jimmy Lee Gray’s end at the hands of a drunken executioner was messed up. It took him eight minutes to die in severe pain. But, as many observers noted, his death was no worse than the merciless violation of his child victim.
In July 1952, John Straffen was convicted by a jury in Winchester, England of murdering a schoolgirl and he was sentenced to hang. The Daily Mail reports that “The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the then home secretary Sir David Maxwell Fyfe on the grounds that Straffen was a ‘feeble-minded person.’ ”
He was incarcerated in Broadmoor, a hospital for the criminally insane. Within months of being put behind bars Straffen escaped from Broadmoor. Christopher Hudson, writing in The Daily Mail tells how Straffen “… sauntered into the nearby village of Arborfield and strangled five-year-old Linda Bowyer, who had been out riding her bike.”
He was quickly recaptured and spent the rest of his life under lock and key. He died in 2007 having set the record for the longest incarceration of a criminal in England, at 55 years.
In February 2010, Tom Whitehead wrote in The Telegraph that “Nearly 30 killers released from jail have gone on to kill again on Britain’s streets in the last decade, figures show.”
It’s hard to think of a more peaceful place than New Zealand, but it too has its brushes with violent criminals. One such is Graeme Burton.
The Encyclopedia of New Zealand says that “he stabbed lighting technician Neville Anderson to death outside a Wellington nightclub in 1992 and was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. He was paroled in mid-2006.”
Within a few weeks of getting out of prison Burton had amassed an arsenal that included, says The New Zealand Herald “a Glock pistol, two rifles cut down to pistols, ammunition, knives, batons, a crossbow, kevlar helmet, a .22 rifle, and a telescopic sight.”
It wasn’t long before he shot and killed a mountain biker and wounded four others. The 36-year-old Burton got a 26-year sentence with no chance of parole.
The Encyclopedia of New Zealand notes that “At least 14 people with previous convictions for murder or manslaughter have killed again in New Zealand.”
Similar stories can be found in every other country.
Death Penalty Alternatives
Many murderers serve their time, are released into society, and never kill again. But, as we’ve seen, some have brutal instincts that cannot be controlled. How can you tell one from the other? The answer is that you can’t; not with 100 percent accuracy.
So, the argument goes, all murderers must be kept behind bars until they die. There are those who say this is a harsher punishment than humane execution. Some inmates clearly agree. According to the 2010 book Suicide and Self Harm in Prisons and Jails, prisoners on death row kill themselves at six times the rate of the general prison population. This may have a lot to do with living under the stress of knowing an execution date is going to be set at sometime.
The alternative of life without parole is known as LWOP among the justice system fraternity. It is, of course, also a death penalty; just slower than the needle. However, it does not violate the moral principle that it's wrong to deliberately take another person's life, no matter what the circumstances.
The big plus for LWOP is that it gives the falsely imprisoned a chance to prove their innocence and gain release. The Death Penalty Information Center tells us that “Since 1973, 157 people have been exonerated and freed from death row."
- According to Amnesty International, “At the end of 2018, 106 countries (a majority of the world’s states) had abolished the death penalty in law for all crimes, and 142 countries (more than two-thirds) had abolished the death penalty in law or practice.”
- There are more than 3,000 inmates awaiting execution in the United States.
- A report from the United States Sentencing Commission notes that of 25,400 inmates released from federal prisons in 2005, almost half (49.3%) had been rearrested within eight years. Denmark, which houses most prisoners in open custody in bungalows, has a recidivism rate of 27 percent. This suggests the U.S. prison system does a poor job of rehabilitating convicts.
Life Without Parole or Execution
- “An Eyewitness Recalls Death of Jimmy Gray.” Dan Lohwasser, United Press International, September 9, 1984.
- “Triple Child Killer Who Became Britain’s Longest Serving Prisoner Dies in Jail.” Mail Online, November 20, 2007.
- “A Short List of Murderers Released to Murder Again.” Pro Death Penalty Web Page, undated.
- “Killers Freed to Kill Again.” Tom Whitehead, The Telegraph, February 4, 2010.
- “Lifers Released on Licence to Kill Again.” Hayley Dixon, The Telegraph, September 16, 2013.
- “Graeme Burton, Multiple Murderer.” Encyclopedia of New Zealand, undated.
- “The Freedom Gamble.” Phil Taylor, The New Zealand Herald, January 13, 2007.
- “DNA Exonerations Nationwide.” The Innocence Project, October 26, 2015.
- “The Death Penalty Is Cruel. But So Is Life Without Parole.” Stephen Lurie, New Republic, June 16, 2015.
- “Recidivism among Federal Offenders: A Comprehensive Overview.” U.S. Sentencing Commission, 2016.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
ylek on April 25, 2019:
this was very helpfull thx
Madison on December 14, 2018:
That is scary
MJenkins62 on September 06, 2017:
The subject of the death penalty in the United States is one like many others where all Americans don't agree. Proponents and opponents will never agree, and frequently can't discuss the subject objectively. Fortunately in this country we have a means to address differences like that, it's called the democratic process. We have the ability to vote for representatives who reflect our values , and subsequently have a voice in the way we are governed. The way that murders are punished falls in this spectrum. I am a death penalty proponent. What angers me most, and anger is the word, about death penalty opponents is not that they feel differently from me , they are certainly entitled to, it is the way the opponents , as the embodied in the anti-death penalty movement, try to usurp the democratic process. In my opinion, and I can support that opinion with facts, the anti-death penalty movement frequently uses misinformation, misleading information, or incomplete information to fuel false narratives about captital punishment in an effort to sway public opinion. Despite this, on EVERY occasion in states where the question of whether to have capital punishment has been put directly to the people, the people have said they believe the death penalty should be an option for murders . The most recent example is this past November , where voters in three states voted to retain or reinstate the death penalty. That includes ultra liberal California, where voters for the FOURTH time since 1978 indicated they want death as a punishment for certain murders .
The opponents of capital punishment often tout the number of states that recently eliminated it, they conveniently failed comment on the fact in none of those states was the action a result of a direct vote of the people. In Nebraska the people told the legislature, your action doesn't reflect our will when voters acted to reinstate the death penalty.
The subject of killers who kill again, is another one which opponents either don't discuss, or offer misleading or at best incomplete information . The common statement is that released murders have a "very low" recidivism rate, often quoted at "1-2%". An equally available fact , which should be included in any discussion about the purpose of, effectiveness of , or even need for the death penalty is that of the 2900 offenders currently on death row , between 7 and 8% are on death row after their second homocide ( manslaughter/murder) conviction . That means that each one of those individuals killed a person, was convicted , sentenced to prison , were released and killed again. If they faced a death sentence on their murder , were spared it, an innocent person paid with their life when the murderer was given that second chance . That means that as many as 232 ( if each offender only killed one victim) innocent persons died when they could have been protected .That is not right , nor does it have to happen.
It is indeed a fact, that our criminal justice system has a problem with erroneous convictions. Innocent offenders have in fact been convicted and sent to death row ( there is no proof of a innocent offender being executed since 1976, despite assertions that it's happened) but regarding the exoneration list published by the Death Penalty Information Center its important to note their disclaimer. It's message says in effect that while the names on the list once faced a death sentence and now do not, DPIC is not saying that all 158 individuals ( whatever is the number) were not in anyway involved in the deaths of the victims in each of those cases. While some on that list were indeed completely innocent , the list itself is often presented as though all 158 had nothing to do with crimes associated crimes that lead to their convictions.
While they will fail to acknowledge it, the position of death penalty opponents says that after a murder is convicted , society should accept if the next person they kill is another prision inmate or a prision guard . Those lives are apparently expendable. Said another way, it is the position of death penalty opponents that only the innocent should die.
The public deserves a full , thorough, and balanced discussion on this topic.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on February 01, 2017:
Thanks "simplehappylife" I am morally opposed to the death penalty as I suspect came through in the piece. Like you, I don't know what the answer is. Sometimes, there just aren't any easy answers.
simplehappylife on February 01, 2017:
Man. I don't know what the "right" way to deal with murderers would be. I can easily see things from both sides.
Great article, definitely makes one sit back and ponder.