Those Who Seek Execution: Capital Punishment as a Form of Suicide

By Van Wormer, Katherine | USA TODAY, March 1995 | Go to article overview
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Those Who Seek Execution: Capital Punishment as a Form of Suicide


Van Wormer, Katherine, USA TODAY


CRIME continues to lead in polls that gauge prioritizing of the most serious issues facing the U.S. An outcry for harsher punishment, including the death penalty, is reflected in legislation at the state and Federal levels. Politicians' platforms calling for the death penalty echo the public rage against the violent criminal.

What is the impact of the death penalty on the homicide rate? Can victimization be prevented by letting the public know that killers will face death themselves? To address these questions, it is imperative to understand what goes on in the minds of some killers, especially those who attack not out of passion, but in cold blood, often claiming multiple victims.

Public execution has been an established means of punishment since the founding of America. From 1967 to 1977, however, use of the death penalty ceased, partly due to Supreme Court decisions that the penalty, as then applied, was unconstitutional. In 1976, as states revised their guidelines for execution, the practice was resumed. In 1977, Gary Gilmore was the first person in a decade to be executed. He had killed strangers ruthlessly--a crime which, on the surface, made no sense.

Upon examining the life of Gilmore, a key theme that emerges is the self-hatred and utter self-contempt of a man apparently bent on his own destruction. Criminologist G. Richard Strafer and author Norman Mailer each have singled out Gilmore as the prototype of one who plotted his own dramatic end. After being paroled from Marion Federal Penitentiary, he (consciously or unconsciously) was attracted to Utah, where execution was by firing squad, rather than his home in Oregon, then a non-death penalty jurisdiction. After fighting his attorney for the right to be killed and receiving extensive public attention, Gilmore managed to be immortalized in death as he could not be in life.

The implications of Gilmore's actions are staggering. Innocent persons were gunned down at a gas station, it seems, so a criminal could have himself executed. Utah's death penalty therefore may have attracted, rather than repelled, crime, at least in this case. Are there others? Sociologist Thorsten Sellin, author of Capital Punishment, reports on an unnamed prisoner at Leavenworth who committed murder in order to exchange his life sentence for a death sentence. Numerous psychiatric reports attest to the phenomenon. Psychiatrist George Solomon in 1975 wrote about two cases involving capital punishment used as suicide. In the first, a Vietnam veteran, hardened to killing, chose to end it all by engaging in murder for hire. He knew that, in his state, the death penalty was mandatory for murder-for-hire killings. He told his sister, "I'm too much of a coward to commit suicide." The inability to take one's own life is a theme seen throughout such suicidal killings.

In Solomon's second case, a 20-year-old baby-sitter suffocated two children. In her words: "I killed my girls; I killed two pieces of me. They were like my sisters and I miss them so much.... I had to kill them. ... Yeah, they would kill me in the electric chair probably. I remember somebody telling me they were trying to get rid of capital punishment, and like I asked the sergeant if like they still had capital punishment and he said yes, so I was pretty happy about it."

Both parties described by Solomon thought about being executed prior to committing their acts. In each case, the state gave them prison terms instead of killing them.

In 1959, at the California governor's request, psychiatrist Bernard Diamond examined a man immediately before his execution. The convict confessed to Diamond that he had committed three rape-murders and had attempted a fourth. His mission was suicide. When asked what he would have done had California not had a death penalty, he replied, "I would have had to go to another state where they did have capital punishment and do it there." Diamond concluded from this case and his confirmation from other forensic psychiatrists that the threat of the death penalty can act as an instigation to crime, rather than a deterrent.

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