Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Baruch dayan emet.

Convicted murderer Martin Grossman was executed today in Florida for the killing of 26 year old Margaret “Peggy” Park.

Peggy Park, just three years out of college, was a wildlife officer who, back in 1984, came across Grossman and a companion in the woods with a stolen handgun. Grossman, who was already on probation, pleaded with Park to let him go because if she arrested him, he’d go back to prison.

She refused, he attacked and they struggled. Grossman was 100 pounds heavier and a foot taller than Park. He wrested her flashlight away from her and beat her with it. She managed to draw her handgun and fired a wild shot, but he finally got the gun away from her too. He then shot her to death.

Grossman was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to die, but since then, has had his sentence under appeal, in one court or another, for 25 years.

The case has been a hot topic in the news for weeks, especially in Jewish circles because Grossman was Jewish. I saw the first “please sign our petition to save Martin Grossman” email several weeks ago, read it, and let it be. I don’t bother with internet petitions anyway – a waste of time, no matter what the issue is – but this was one I wouldn’t support in any event.

I should declare upfront that I am now and always have been a strong supporter of the death penalty. It is because I respect life that I believe the wonton taking of it should subject the killer to the ultimate penalty. If an intentional murderer isn’t required to forfeit his own life for the taking of another’s, then what value do we place on life? Without the considered application of the ultimate penalty, they’ve we as good as said it: life itself has no value.

Besides that, the death penalty is remarkably effective. It’s not possible to argue that the death penalty isn’t a deterrent – of course it is! If nothing else, it deters THAT one. Today we know one thing for sure: Martin Grossman will never kill again. Will the example of his execution deter other would-be killers? Statistics and anecdotal evidence says it does.

All that said, I paid attention to the arguments put forth on behalf of Grossman, specifically, that he suffered from some degree of mental retardation. That issue came up at trial, and Grossman was found to have the required mental capacity to be responsible for his acts. Under the applicable age-old, time tested, M’Naughton Rule, which considers whether the accused was able “to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; and if he did know it, that he knew what he was doing was wrong” Grossman was found to be competent.

At the trial, Grossman was proven to have met the test: he knew what he was doing; he knew it was wrong. He knew killing was wrong. If you want more proof, consider this: he also knew having the stolen gun was wrong – that’s why he killed Peggy Park.

I was similarly not persuaded by arguments that Grossman had fully repented of his act. Hey -- fine that he was sorry, I just don’t see it as a mitigating circumstance. I suspect that given the chance to escape the death penalty, something in excess of 100% of prisoners on death row would fervently avow the same thing. Living a few steps away from the death chamber tends to focus the mind. It would most likely make serious repentees out of most of us.

But the real problem with Grossman’s repentance is that he didn’t make it to the right person. The only one who can forgive Grossman for killing Peggy Park is …. Peggy Park. It was her life he took. His apologies to anyone else – including her family -- are completely irrelevant. Only Peggy Park can forgive him.

Oh, you say, but that’s impossible! How could he apologize to Peggy Park? She’s dead!

Well, there you have the problem. Grossman took away Peggy Park’s life. Because he killed her -- the only one who could forgive him – there isn’t anyone else who can. Which means there’s not much the rest of us can do about it, is there? It’s a conundrum, no question about that. It’s beyond the range of any of us humans to solve.

There was one element of injustice in this case, and that’s the fact that it dragged on for 25 years.

To be most effective as a deterrent, all punishments -- the death penalty included -- must be applied swiftly and surely. A 25 year delay is ridiculous – it didn’t work to Grossman’s benefit. It put Peggy Park’s family through a horrendous kind of torture the rest of us can hardly imagine. It weakened the effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent to other would-be killers. The delay was inexcusable.

But remember, the endless delays and appeals were brought on by Grossman himself. He and his supporters were the ones who dragged this out. That being the case, he can’t now come before the bar of justice and claim that because of the long delays in implementing the penalty, he should escape it.

But, you say, mistakes can be made at trial. The evidence needs to be carefully examined.

I agree. Mistakes can be made, and obviously the trial court verdict needs to be examined and then reevaluated again. But not for 25 years. A limit of two years for all appropriate appeals should be adequate.

I’m completely, 100%, in support of a revision of the rules of appeal for death penalty cases to something along those lines. These cases should not be allowed to go on this long, litigating and relitigating the same issues, over and over. It’s unjust. It serves no purpose. Changes in the law should be made to limit the number of appeals, to limit their scope and duration.

Today, 25 years after he took the life of Peggy Park, Martin Grossman met the same fate – albeit in a far kinder and humane fashion than he permitted his victim.

Am I sorry he’s dead? I lament the loss of any life, but in the scheme of things, I’m much more sorry that Peggy Park -- just out of college, just starting her life, just doing her job -- was cut down without mercy by a man intent on escaping the consequences of his previous crimes. It’s Peggy Park and her family – and the children and grandchildren she will never have – for whom I feel sorry.

Was justice done?

The law was applied. About justice, I have no idea. I’ll leave that to the True Judge. Let Him figure this one out.


  1. kol hakavod - very thought-provoking and well-reasoned

  2. I respectfully disagree.
    My belief is that only the Almighty, who gives life, can take life. I am quite sure that no man, however wise or esteemed, judge or jury, has the divine wisdom to do so.
    Case in point: standards change over time, even over relatively short periods of time. Case in point - Leo Frank. who was sentenced to death for his alleged crime. Although the sentence was overturned, an outraged mob took him out and lynched him to "see justice done". In the Old South many executions were carried out in cases which wouldn't stand a chance in court today. Who is to say that today's standards will hold tomorrow? Change might be acceptable when dealing with prison sentences or torts, but death penalties are in a completely different category.
    I've always been quite amazed that the overwhelming majority of people supporting the death penalty are adamantly opposed to abortion, while a similiar majority of those opposed to capital punishment strongly favor abortion rights. Why is it that so many of us insist on the right "to play God", imperiously demanding the right to decide over life and death. In my eyes if someone is pro-life they would oppose capital punishment and abortion equally. Supporting the death penalty would be more consistent with supporting abortion rights, and such adherents would, I suppose, might be considered "pro death". Evil shahidim have firm convictions, no less strong than most of our convictions, that "nonbelievers" deserve to die. But the Torah says "choose life", and I think that can be taken to mean not just for ourselves but for wherever the miracle of life has been given.

  3. Well, unlike you, B.D. I have no trouble at all in distinguishing between taking innocent life (an unborn child) and the polar opposite, killing a vicious murderer who has taken some else's life. There's no inconsistancy there at all.

    Beyond that, the Torah itself provids for the death penalty -- so surely you aren't suggesting the Torah rules it out, are you?

  4. Well I'll do my best then to keep out of trouble. I'd hate to think what would happen if you landed up on my jury.

  5. It's the reason I do my best to keep from murdering anyone -- even as frequently provoked as I am by that crowd in DC.

    You know that old saw: If you can't do the time, don't do the crime!

    It's always a good idea to stay out of trouble if you don't want a somber faced State employee approaching you with a gurney and a bag of saline....

  6. Baglenosher I find no flaws with your thinking. A murderer is a murderer. The young man at the time was a preson who had demonstrated, by previous convictions,to behave in a manner that fell below the acceptable levels of society.

    The real human tragedy here is the loss of this public servant who was only doing her job and the shame this recalctrant criminal brought on his family.

    I also was a reciprient of those petitions. The petitions were dismissed for the same reasons you have presented to us above.

  7. You're absolutely right, Manis -- I should have emphasized that more than I did. Here was this young woman, a fine and valued young person, doing nothing more than enforing the law as was her job. Now she's gone. That's a tragedy for all time, for all of us, everywhere. Thanks for adding that.