The Web site of the New York Times carried a January 14 story by Barry James of the International Herald Tribune claiming that the clearing of death row in Illinois by Governor George Ryan had been greeted with “global cheers.” Ryan said he was commuting the sentences because of the risk of erroneous verdicts and the possibility that innocent people on death row might be put to death. The article concluded that, in its continued use of the death penalty, the United States was “in the company mostly of authoritarian states like China and Iran, which last week hanged a teenager for drinking alcohol and six people for drug trafficking.”
The other side of the story is that criminals who stay alive in prison can murder again. Consider the case of Donna A. Payant, who was an officer in the New York State Department of Corrections when she was strangled, beaten, bitten and killed by an inmate in 1981. The killer was sentenced to death but this was overturned and changed to life in prison. The inmate, Lemuel Smith, was working for the prison chaplain when the incident occurred. He had been an alter server.
Smith had held up a religious store in 1976 and had murdered the owner of the store and an employee. The next year, Smith kidnapped a New York woman and robbed and murdered her. When he was finally apprehended, he was tried and convicted on two counts of murder, robbery, and kidnapping. He was sentenced by the court to serve three terms of 25 years to life in prison. If Smith had been executed after his first conviction of murder, Donna Payant would not have been murdered. Obviously, the death penalty would have been a deterrent in this case at least.
After Payant’s body showed up in a landfill near the prison, investigators immediately began viewing hundreds of prisoners at the Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, New York, as suspects. The break came when the medical examiner who identified the cause of death also found a “signature” element to the crime similar to a murder investigated ten years earlier. That was a bite mark on her chest that matched bites found on Smith’s previous victims. When the medical examiner checked further, he discovered that Smith was an inmate at the prison where Payant worked.
Opponents of the death penalty have a point in saying that, if innocent people are on death row, that means that the real killers in those cases were left free, possibly to kill again. On the other hand, cop killers, child killers, and rapist-murderers who are only given life sentences also have another chance to kill again. There are more than 200,000 correctional officers in America who have to guard and police those murderers. They are outnumbered 40 to 1 by the criminals.
One Web site dedicated to these officers makes the point that prisons are not like those you see on television or in the movies, and that convicted felons are not locked in a cell 23 or 24 hours a day. Hundreds of correctional officers have been killed in the line of duty. Donna Payant was one of them. There may be more as long as convicted killers are kept alive in prison at taxpayer expense.