Will the US call time-out on serial killers?


Harold Gene Lucas was sentenced to death in January 1977. At the time of writing, he is still on death row, and his case is far from unique.

Ted Bundy.

In August 1976, Harold Gene Lucas shot and killed a 16 year old girl. He was sentenced to death by a Lee County jury the following year, and the family of his victim both expected and wanted to see him executed. Thirty-six years later, he is still on death row in Florida. In the UK, the death penalty was abolished in practice in 1964, and by statute a few years later.

The last truly notorious murderer to be executed here was James Hanratty, in April 1962. In January 1967, Dennis Stafford and Michael Luvaglio shot Angus Sibbet in an execution style killing; after receiving the mandatory life sentence, they were paroled a mere twelve years later.

In the UK, Harold Lucas would quite likely have been paroled, if not after twelve years, then after twenty. Whether or not you consider that to be right or wrong, you cannot in all honesty believe that it is right for a man sentenced to death to be left languishing on death row for three decades and more, that might just be deemed cruel and unusual punishment. Neither is it justice for the families of victims. Take a look at the progress or lack thereof of this case through the courts.

An attempt is currently being made in Florida to curtail this nonsense with the Timely Justice Act. This is not the first time such an attempt has been made, and it remains to be seen if it can progress. An act of this nature can be brought only at the state level due to the structure of the American Government.

There are as might be expected many spurious arguments put forward by self-styled social justice advocates for opposing such legislation, the biggest being that hoary old chestnut, what if we execute the wrong man? If you believe Clive Stafford Smith, this has been a regular occurrence, but who does?

There is though a better way, Harold Gene Lucas may have been a bad man, he may still be one, but he is far from the worst of the worst. If the State of Florida and the other states where murder can be capital were to curtail the use of the death penalty for all but those thoroughly evil men and women – the latter extremely few in number – who murder time and time and time again, they would at once knock the bottoms out of the two most potent arguments against its use: of miscarriage of justice and the seemingly endless rounds of frivolous appeals.

When a man is tried for only one murder, there is always a risk of his being falsely convicted, even if the evidence that he committed the act is overwhelming, there is still the question of mens rea. The more murders he has committed though, the greater will be the evidence against him, such was the case with that most notorious of serial killers Ted Bundy, who was sentenced to death in two separate Florida trials for three murders. He is known to have committed many more. All the same, it took nine years for the State of Florida to expunge him from the face of this planet.

In the United States, all capital cases are reviewed automatically by the appellate courts. This can be done in one year, two at most. The timetable for the aforementioned James Hanratty case is instructive:

he murdered Michael Gregsten on the night of August 22, 1961 or the small hours of the following day;

he was arrested October 11;

his trial opened January 22, 1962;

he was convicted and sentenced to death February 17;

his appeal was dismissed on March 13;

and he was hanged April 4, 1962.

This was a difficult case, although contrary to the propaganda churned out by the likes of Paul Foot, Hanratty’s conviction was in no way controversial.

There is absolutely no reason for the trial and execution of a serial killer to take so very much longer than the process in the Hanratty case, even if we add on a year for good measure.

Taking the likes of Harold Gene Lucas out of the frame for execution would restore the credibility the death penalty warrants when it comes to dealing with pure evil.

It would also free up enormous resources – financial and other – that could be employed on the rehabilitation of those men and women who are weak rather than evil, and who without proper guidance will end up doing a life sentence on the instalment plan.

[The above op-ed was first published May 21, 2013; the original wasn’t archived.]

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