Letters to the Editor

Upset Doesn't Merit Death

Editor's note: This editorial appeared last week in The (Columbia) State.

Susan Smith offered to plead guilty to drowning her two young sons and then leading the nation on an agonizing search for a fabricated kidnapper, but prosecutor Tommy Pope refused because he was determined to seek the death penalty. That decision was roundly rejected by a jury that took just 21/2 hours to sentence the pathetic and conniving young woman to the two life sentences she could have received without using up the time of Pope and his staff and the courts or forcing taxpayers to pick up a $200,000 tab for her defense.

What those jurors understood was that you don't execute a mother who, though legally responsible for her actions, clearly was driven not by malice but by emotional problems. On the most basic level, such a person is not a threat to society. From a legal and a moral perspective, we can't justify executing one mother who behaved in a spectacularly deceptive way after killing her children, while not even giving a life sentence to -- much less executing -- hundreds of mothers and fathers who kill their children every year in the quiet of their homes.

Although the murder of any child is agonizing and unforgiveable, what Smith did was actually worse than what police say Shaquan Renee Duley did, when she pushed her car into the North Edisto River after strapping her lifeless sons into their car seats: Duley smothered her children; Smith pushed them into a lake alive to drown. Police say Duley claimed she had a wreck and quickly confessed her crime; Smith fabricated a story about a black man stealing her car and her children, and maintained that story through 10 days in the national spotlight. Duley couldn't take the pressures of raising her children without their father and with no job; Smith wanted a man.

So it's disturbing that Solicitor David Pascoe is considering following in Pope's misdirected footsteps and pursuing the death penalty against Duley. We hope that he isn't seriously thinking about such a wasteful and inappropriate pursuit, but simply keeping quiet about all aspects of the case while emotions are running so high.

The response to Duley's actions is understandable. We are consumed by pity, agony, even rage when we see the pictures of those innocent children splashed across the front page of the newspaper, flashed repeatedly on the TV screen. When we think about their very own mother killing them, it is simply too much to take. We want to lash out at her, make her suffer as they suffered. An eye for an eye.

But when we decide to execute someone based on our emotions, we are no better than the killers.

This editorial board has long supported the judicious use of the death penalty, but that means more than simply making absolutely certain that the person being tried is the guilty party. It also means setting aside our emotions, making sure that we are reserving the ultimate punishment for only those very worst of the worst killers, the ones for whom no other punishment is sufficient. Frankly, forcing a mother to spend the rest of her life thinking about what she did is probably far more punitive than sentencing her to die.

The only thing that sets Shaquan Duley and Susan Smith apart from all those other parents who kill their children is the public nature of the killings -- the fact that we had to witness the aftermath. There's nothing judicious about executing someone because of the way their crime made us feel.