This week in Kansas City horrifies like few others in recent memory.
People are understandably discussing the most extreme form of justice for the senselessly cruel crimes that Brandon Howell is accused of — now and in the past. What kind of a person would kill an 88-year-old woman, her 63-year-old son and a 69-year-old neighbor by shooting them, possibly after he had already severely beaten another elderly neighborhood couple?
Howell escaped prior charges of murdering two Johnson County teenagers, acquitted at a 2009 trial. The quick response is that if anyone deserves the death penalty, it’s someone holding such a rap sheet. Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said it’s a possibility, saying that “all punishments are on the table.”
Yet Howell is exactly why the death penalty is a tough issue. That is, if people are honest. If they weigh the massive costs and the lengthy appeals, admit it’s state-sanctioned murder, note who is more likely to receive it and who isn’t, and get clear enough to separate from reactive vengeance. Admittedly, that’s difficult in cases like this.
If convicted, Howell will demonstrate why so many people aren’t moved by the idea of a death row inmate struggling a bit during an execution. People hear about recent botched lethal injections — where inmates have taken nearly half an hour, and in one case nearly two hours, to die — and come away exclaiming, “So what?” Read descriptions of the crime scenes tied to those inmates’ convictions, and a bit of gasping might seem miniscule by comparison.
But that’s the perspective of the vengeful. As a nation, we strive to stand for more, to be above eye-for-an-eye punishment. It’s why the U.S. Supreme Court set standards for “cruel and unusual” punishment. And it’s why concern is merited for studies showing the nation is pretty uneven about whose life is seemingly deemed to be worth more by patterns of execution. Numerous studies have raised the question of whether jurors are more likely to recommend a death sentence if the victim was white.
Missouri is among the states pushing how far execution protocols can be hidden from public scrutiny. Information reported this week raised questions about Missouri possibly using a drug that has been linked with drawn-out executions elsewhere. It’s a challenging parallel to coincide with Howell’s alleged crime spree.
But remember, vindictive retaliation is the easy reply. A fair justice system is another matter.