FUNNY but apocryphal is the tale of the youth who kills his own parents and then pleads for mercy based on the fact that he's an orphan.
Not funny but in the real world is the story of a man who was shot by police after fatally wounding his wife and then claiming he lacks the mental capacity to be executed, partly because he was shot by police after killing his wife.
So far, as a result of a series of court rulings, Garry Allen has escaped the death penalty to which he was sentenced. Allen was to have been given a lethal injection on April 12 in McAlester.
The case is a conundrum for society, one of many that surround capital punishment. Allen's attorneys say he already lacked mental capacity at the time of the crime. They not only claim his execution violates federal protections but that Oklahoma's procedure for establishing mental competency in general is unconstitutional.
We might as well throw this into the mix of disagreement about capital punishment. That stew has many ingredients already. Who can and who can't be executed is a moving target, currently excluding killers under a certain age at the time of the crime (Oklahoma was the last state to execute a juvenile, in 2003), mental capacity and, of course, the specifics of the crime itself. Immigration status has also played a role.
The definition of “cruel and unusual punishment” vis a vis the death penalty is itself a moving target — which is why American executions are now almost entirely limited to lethal injections.
Allen's case is instructive. The only question that should matter is his mental capacity at the time he killed his wife, not subsequently. Condemned killers can be on death row for 10 or 12 or more years. A lot can happen to mental capacity before the sentence is carried out, especially if the inmate is of an advanced age at the time of sentencing. One could argue that just living on a death row year after year diminishes mental capacity.
If Allen's pre-existing mental capacity doesn't meet current standards for executions, his sentence should be commuted to life in prison, as the state Pardon and Parole Board has recommended. But the attorney general's office and Gov. Mary Fallin are satisfied that the sentence given Allen should be carried out. The federal judiciary will determine Allen's fate.
Meantime, the agonizing debate over capital punishment goes on, with state after state (Connecticut is the latest) deciding that the death penalty should no longer be on the table. Death penalty supporters, a group that generally includes a majority of Americans, may grow weary of the debate and acquiesce to a cheaper, less controversial system of sentencing killers to life without the possibility of parole.
We wonder, though, whether capital punishment supporters — having achieved their key goal — would then move on to claiming that life without parole is itself cruel and unusual.
As things now stand, killers who aren't on death row get scant attention compared with those who have a more certain date with death.