November 10th, 2009
04:47 PM ET

To kill the killer

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/CRIME/10/20/death.penalty/t1home.death.gi.jpg]

Mishan Afsari

“What says the law? You will not kill. How does it say it? By killing!”
-Victor Hugo, author of 'Les Miserables'

It seems so complicated – killing by lethal injection. Strapping an inmate to a gurney, sticking on heart monitors, inserting needles in veins, connecting intravenous drip tubes.

And then the wait: drip drip drip. First saline – harmless. Then sodium thiopental – puts one to sleep. Then a paralytic agent – stops the breath. And last, potassium chloride – stops the heart. Drip.

All this, versus one bullet.

It only took one bullet to kill each of the 10 victims when John Muhammad and his young accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo terrorized the D.C. Beltway for three weeks in October 2002.

A .223 caliber Bushmaster rifle, a crude hole etched in the trunk of their tinted Chevy Caprice, and two ruthless killers was all it took.

Just filling up on gas or running an errand at Home Depot made anyone, at any time, a most convenient target for the snipers.

And we may never know why, because to this day, a clear motive for the killings has yet to be explained. To this day, Muhammad has yet to express remorse, has yet to apologize.

And this day, is John Muhammad’s day to die.

The jury and the court said it was so, in 2003. The U.S. Supreme Court said it was so yesterday. Virginia Governor Tim Kaine said it was so today, when he denied Muhammad’s request for clemency.

Showing mercy on a killer is nearly incomprehensible, if only for the sake of the victims and their families.

But victims do not decide their killer’s fate. The U.S. legal system does – a system that says it too can kill, that killing a criminal is appropriate if 12 objective citizens find the crime atrocious enough.

A death sentence must be the weightiest decision for any jury, any government, any morally concerned citizen.

Some historians believe the death penalty originated from the biblical view of “an eye for an eye.” And yet this simple concept is so far removed from the true complexities of killing a person under a code of law.

In recent years the countries that allow for the death penalty are noticeably dwindling – to date, 139 countries have abolished the death penalty by law or by practice. The U.S. is one of only 58 countries that retains the death penalty.

Which countries share this status?

China comes first, with 1718 executions, at least. Iran is second, at 346 and Saudi Arabia third, at 102. The U.S. ranks fourth, with 37 executions in 2008, followed close behind by Pakistan, Iraq, Vietnam, and North Korea – not company we’d normally boast about.

These numbers, these statistics – they don’t mean anything to the victims of Muhammad’s and Malvo’s killing spree. It’s possible their torment may only end when Muhammad’s life comes to an end.

But it’s just as possible that nothing can mend their loss – that Muhammad’s death tonight will just leave one more person dead, on a chain of killings he himself began.

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