(March 30, 2001 12:01 a.m. EST) - Death penalty opponents believe life behind
bars, unlike execution, gives convicts decades to recover from their crimes.
"As long as a prisoner remains alive he or she can hope for
rehabilitation," Amnesty International has declared.
Unfortunately, some murderers stop pondering their misdeeds and seek
greener pastures beyond the penitentiary walls.
Such wanderlust led William D. Davis and Douglas E. Gray to escape a
Stringtown, Okla., prison on March 16. Both were serving life sentences for
homicide. Davis stabbed a man 80 times with a knife during a 1974 robbery
while Gray fatally beat and shot a teacher in 1988.
After hiding in a truck bound for the local post office, prison authorities
say, the convicts seized the vehicle from its driver. They reportedly entered
a woman's home, tied her up, stole her guns and fled in her Ford Taurus.
Later, officials say, the two car-jacked a pickup truck containing two rifles.
After being spotted by a cop, Davis and Gray held an elderly couple hostage
in their home for seven hours on March 24. Gray gave up while Davis apparently
A higher-profile jailbreak ended in a similar standoff. Michael Rodriguez,
sentenced to life for murder, joined six lesser criminals in overpowering
prison employees in Connolly, Texas, last Dec. 13 before leaving in a
maintenance truck. Police say the "Malevolent Seven" robbed an
Oshman's sporting goods store on Christmas Eve, then shot Irving, Texas,
police officer Aubrey Hawkins 11 times and drove over his corpse. Authorities
eventually captured Rodriguez and two other fugitives in a stolen Jeep near
Woodland Park, Colo. A SWAT team surrounded two escapees hidden in a trailer.
Randy Halprin surrendered.
After negotiating with police, Larry Harper fatally shot himself.
Statistics on this phenomenon are rare. States categorize escapes
differently and appear not to report them nationally. Clearly though, for some
imprisoned murderers, "life without parole" is more suggestion than
Lee John Knoch escaped Oregon's Snake River Correctional Institute Feb. 28
before being caught in Idaho. He received life for burying Robert Holliday
alive to prevent his testimony at Knoch's torture trial.
After escaping a Florida prison in 1991, John Fred Woolard shot and killed
a park ranger. Last May 28, Woolard escaped again, this time from a
Mississippi prison, accompanied by armed robber Roy Randall Harper.
The two convicts allegedly fired at a sheriff's deputy who stopped them for
speeding, then embarked on a high-speed chase in a stolen van last June 14.
Woolard surrendered three days later, after a final getaway bid in yet another
Would tighter facilities help? Perhaps. But on Jan. 15, three convicts
escaped Oklahoma's H-Unit, a supposedly hermetically sealed "prison
within a prison." The inmates reportedly disappeared into the crawl space
behind the toilet each had pried loose in his respective cell.
Robber Nathan Washington became ensnared in the complex's concertina wire.
Murderer James Robert Thomas and kidnapper Willie Lee Hoffman were recovered,
but not before they stole an Oldsmobile belonging to one of two women they
ambushed. Thomas, who escaped the Oklahoma County Jail in 1994, was doing life
for the 1993 rape and killing of Jessie Roberts, his 81-year-old neighbor who
paid the then 17-year-old to mow her lawn.
A 5,000-volt electric fence did not deter Steve Murphy, O.C. Borden and
Gary Scott. These three murderers, all lifers, escaped a high-security prison
in St. Clair Springs, Ala., on Jan. 30. Along with three fellow inmates, they
lifted the fence with a broom handle and slithered to freedom. Murphy once
escaped this facility in the 1980s.
"There are always people who rebel against being contained," says
Captain Dave Arnold, personnel director at the Virginia Peninsula Regional
Jail in Williamsburg. "There are those who will take that to heart and
make it their mission to get out." Arnold explains that prison
overcrowding has decreased guard-inmate ratios, something convicts surely
notice. "These guys can look for all kinds of flaws," he adds.
"It's their job to poke holes in the system."
Execution foes correctly argue that the legal system must shield innocents
from improper capital punishment. DNA technology addresses this legitimate
concern, as would better legal representation for indigent defendants.
Nevertheless, properly convicted capital murderers should be dispatched.
Life sentences too often are mere challenges for prisoners to escape,
terrify law-abiding citizens and sometimes kill again. The death penalty's
detractors cannot refute this fact: Even the toughest criminals become
remarkably docile once separated from society by six feet of soil.
New York commentator Deroy Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps
Howard News Service and a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research
Foundation in Fairfax, Va.