DEROY MURDOCK: A sure way to prevent prison escapes

NEW YORK
(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.

Not necessarily.

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 committed suicide.

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 reality.

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 car-jacked van.

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.

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