Accuracy in Media

It was national news that a repeat sex-offender released into a small town in Minnesota was suspected in the abduction of a female college student in North Dakota. Less attention was paid to the fact that if Alfonso Rodriguez is found guilty in the woman’s murder, he cannot get the death penalty. That’s because North Dakota and Minnesota are two of 12 states that have no capital punishment.

Minnesota, where Rodriguez committed most of his crimes, abolished the death penalty in 1911. But a Minneapolis Star Tribune survey found that 57% of state residents favored the death penalty for convicted murderers, and only 33% opposed it. Minnesota’s late liberal Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone was criticized for opposing the death penalty and being soft on crime. But his replacement, Republican Senator Norm Coleman, also opposes capital punishment.

In May, in Minnesota, Charden Gomez was sentenced to two life sentences in the beating and stabbing deaths of Abel and Esther Hillman, both 89 years old. He terrorized, tortured, robbed and murdered this elderly couple in their own home. Mrs. Hillman was stabbed more than 70 times. Gomez had been paroled from prison despite a long criminal record, including convictions for burglarizing the homes of elderly persons and assaulting them. The Hillmans were grandparents, and their granddaughter was crying too hard to read the statement she had written for the sentencing hearing. A prosecutor read her words, which ended with, “My only regret is that the justice system in Minnesota has no death penalty.”

Convicted rapist Alfonso Rodriguez has a long history of involvement with illegal drugs, dating back to his youth. He has admitted to problems with alcohol, marijuana, hashish and LSD. His record also includes being charged and tried in 1979 for sexually assaulting a woman that he abducted from the parking lot of a department store at knifepoint. Rodriguez allegedly raped her twice before releasing her. But the Minnesota jury returned a not-guilty verdict. A guilty verdict in a separate attempted kidnapping case that same year put him in prison for 23 years and he was then freed.

Things are different in Texas. Pat Teer lost her son, Mark Frederick, a 26-year-old Texas state trooper, husband and father of a 3-year-old daughter. His killer, Billy George Hughes, appealed his conviction a dozen times. While awaiting execution in Texas, Hughes had enough time on death row to obtain two college degrees, register as a death-penalty lobbyist, and become a cartoonist. He did cartoons for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and won an award as a “Great Humanitarian” in prison. In the end, however, he was put to death, 14 years after the crime.

Pat Teer says families of murder victims suffer every time the killer is in the news at a trial, appeal, or in Hughes’ case, as he was basking in his celebrity status in the media. The death penalty is not only one way to eliminate the perpetrator of the crime but to put an end to the media obsession with the criminal.

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