[from February 2000 issue]


A few years ago we wrote in this space urging the re-institution of capital punishment for the District (which had been repealed by the city council in 1981). More recently, both then Mayor Marion Barry and at-large Councilmember Carol Schwartz urged reinstating the death penalty in cases of police officers being murdered. At the time we wondered why just police and why not other public servants like firemen? We could have also wondered why not for all heinous murders of children or crippled elderly citizens, two classes of victims that are more helpless than police officers.

Well, we never jumped back in the debate then because it was just about around that time we began to have second thoughts concerning our original position. Already, we were beginning to note instances in other jurisdictions where DNA tests were raising serious questions whether it is ever possible to be absolutely certain that persons found guilty of a murder really did it. Nowadays, when we hear about the Los Angeles police scandals we are even more troubled.

Having said this, we still believe that there are instances when a crime is so dreadful--and we don't have to look to Columbine High way out near Denver; just look at the Wilson High football captain and his girlfriend murdered in cold blood just two days ago because someone was angry about a high school football game contretemps. Or look at the little kids that always seem to be getting gunned down in front of their homes in many parts of this city. Or look at the infamous Starbucks killing in cold blood three years ago by the now-confessed robber-murderer.

And this brings us to our comments today. Starbucks. Our terrific Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton is denouncing U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno for determining that the Justice Department will seek the death penalty in that case, effectively overruling the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. Why, Mrs. Norton demands to know, is the federal government seeking the death penalty in this case and did not in a similar triple slaying during a 1995 robbery at a McDonald's in Southeast DC? Could it be because the Starbucks triple slaying occurred in largely white Georgetown? Could it be that two of the victims were white and all three were just such wonderful kids?

Mrs. Norton sees a racial thing here and believes that since the death penalty was not brought in the McDonald's case but will be in Starbucks the Attorney General is being racist and, by implication, our whole system is racist. Whether or not our criminal justice system is racist is a bigger issue than we are prepared to get into here.

But, we think the debate should not be focused on whether it is wrong to seek the death penalty in the Starbucks case simply because it was not sought in the McDonald's case, even though there does seem to be an imbalance. The real question should be: Why was that penalty not sought in the McDonald's case? We thought it was a bad call at the time, and we have subsequently come to understand that we were not alone in that assessment. McDonald's was as terrible as Starbucks, and the victims were just as much good, hard-working people as the Starbucks victims.

No, the U.S. Attorney and the Justice department should have sought the death penalty then as is being done now. Let's not perpetuate a mistake in judgement a second time--or a third, fourth, or more times. In both cases the evidence clearly justified the death penalty and in both cases there was no doubt about who pulled the trigger and why. We think the world of Mrs. Norton and we hate it that we have to take such umbrage at her position, but this time we believe she is just plain wrong.