THE ONCE-RESPECTED NEW YORK TIMES now specializes in “news” stories that undermine the war in Iraq, strengthen the prejudices of Bush detractors, cover the tracks of Islamic terrorists (aka “militants”), promote left-wing radicals (Lynne Stewart, Stanley Cohen, et. al.), and obscure the pro-terrorist and pro-Communist agendas of the organizers of “peace” demonstrations (International ANSWER and UFPJ). Now it has found a new favored group: child murderers.
The New York Times made a political statement by merely choosing to run this kind of story. The Times could have investigated loopholes in the legal system that allow violent criminals to go free. It could have exposed left-wing judges, appointed by Clinton and company, who hand out light sentences to conservatives, or like Bill O’Reilly, examined how each state’s judges react to child abuse. Instead, it runs a sympathetic biography of a child murderer who, in its hoary opinion, has suffered enough.
That murderer is Jackie Lee Thompson. On December 30, 1969, Thompson invited his girlfriend Charlotte Goodwin, to go hunting with three of Thompson’s friends near Gaines, PA. Although the 15-year-old Thompson confessed later that he had no feelings for Goodwin, he talked her into having sex with him for the past month. Goodwin picked this moment to tell him (falsely) that she was pregnant. Hearing this, Thompson shot her three times with a pump-action shotgun. Why three separate shots? Thompson explains it was a simple childhood game. He and Dennis Ellis, one of his companions that frosty day, “always had a habit of going out in the woods with a gun and see how fast we could empty a gun. That's where the second and third shots come from.” [sic.] In this case, he chose to empty his gun into his girlfriend and their presumptive unborn child. However, the gunshots did not kill her, so the three chums drowned her in a creek – but the resilient Charlotte kept surfacing. Finally, the trio forced Charlotte under an ice-covered patch of water, and unable to find her way out, she drowned five days after Christmas.
For his crime, the judge sentenced the young offender to life in prison, where he remains. Today, Thompson “has a cell to himself, with a television and a guitar.” He plays second base on the softball team. He has learned six trades, completed high school, and earned an Associates Degree in Business, all free-of-charge (to him).
But not all is idyllic: he wants to be free.
The Sunday New York Times chronicled Thompson’s story in a front-page article written by Adam Liptak entitled, “To More Inmates, Life Term Means Dying Behind Bars” – a headline that belongs alongside, “To Most Humans, Breathing Means Inhaling and Exhaling.” Most people naively think when a judge sentences a murderer to a life sentence, that person will die “behind bars.” However, for a generation or longer the dilapidated state of American jurisprudence dictated that “life in prison” meant the average life sentence consisted of seven years in jail. That has recently edged up to around a decade, but this is far from universal. Even in a “law and order” state like Georgia, most murderers remain eligible for parole after seven years, and only a little more than half (57 percent) of Georgia’s lifers have served longer. Thus, argues the Times, since “life in prison” often meant 7-15 years, no judge actually meant to sentence a lifer to serve more than 15 years.
Even in cases where a prisoner is sentenced to life “without the possibility of parole,” Liptak laments the death of gubernatorial pardons. That is to say, Liptak stands against legislatures overruling local judges’ rulings…except when that will let potentially violent people back on the street.
With the advent of such conservative judicial reforms as mandatory sentencing and “three strikes and you’re out,” inmates are approaching serving a sentence that fits the crime. This is precisely the trend the Times wishes to counteract. Walking an ever-narrower line between reporting and editorializing, the Times indicated in this frontpage story that a life sentence should not mean life in prison – even when the judge specifies “life without parole”; life should mean at most 15 years.
Liptak begins by rehabilitating the teenage murderer. Thompson insists he is nothing like the troubled young man whose brutality presaged Scott Peterson. Back then, he says, he was just a scrawny “special-ed kid.” With a speech impediment. From a troubled family. Who was frequently taunted and beaten up. Liptak describes Thompson as “a slight, almost elfin man.” One can nearly hear the strains of “Officer Krupke” as the Grey Lady relates this murderer’s tale of woe.
Now he is older and wiser, but Pennsylvania authorities seem to think a life sentence should be, well, life. Which is more than Charlotte Goodwin got. After all, she's dead and never got the opportunity to grow older and wiser. A lone member of the parole board turned down Thompson's most recent petition. In the Times' view this was very conservative, reactionary, and unprogressive thing to do. The Times portrays Thompson as the model of a reformed prisoner, disappointed but more concerned for the lifers in jail who were pulling for him:
I didn't cry this time. I committed a crime. Even though I think I've been punished enough[!], I'm to the point where I'm worried about my people, my supporters, because it really does take a toll on them.
How could anyone justify keeping a man like this in prison? Liptak cites Marc Mauer of the left-wing Sentencing Project (which wants to grant felons the right to vote) as an expert. Crime, Mauer says, is a young man’s province, and, “Many lifers are kept in prison long after they represent a public safety threat.”
The Times then observes how America is out of step with Old Europe of course. Liptak quotes left-wing Yale Law prof (but then I repeat myself) James Q. Whitman, author of Harsh Justice: “Western Europeans regard 10 or 12 years as an extremely long term, even for offenders sentenced in theory to life.” With the Supreme Court having recently cited international law as a basis for interpreting the U.S. Constitution, this is no incidental point. Liptak adds, “[W]hen Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish gunman who tried to kill Pope John Paul II in 1981, was pardoned in 2000, an Italian judge remarked, “‘No one stays 20 years in prison.’” Why don’t we consider 20 years “cruel and unusual punishment”? Dr. Michael H. Tonry of the University of Minnesota blames America’s backward religious tradition, which is “the same reason we're not a socialist welfare state.” Apparently, not enough people read the Times.
Or perhaps they're concerned about individuals like Reginald McFadden. Liptak notes McFadden
had served 24 years of a life sentence for suffocating Sonia Rosenbaum, 60, during a burglary of her home when a divided Board of Pardons voted to release him in 1992. After Gov. Robert P. Casey signed the commutation papers two years later, Mr. McFadden moved to New York, where he promptly killed two people and kidnapped and raped a third. He is now serving another life sentence there.
The Times cites this story, not as a warning of the pitfalls of “rehabilitation,” but as the unfortunate setback that has caused governors to rethink their free use of pardons. (Bill Clinton did not get the memo.)
McFadden is but one of a very long list of people the system declared “no longer a threat” and could enjoy personal autonomy again. Ben Wattenberg cites a tiny litany of such figures in his book, Values Matter Most:
- Willie Horton, the recipient of Michael Dukakis’ benevolent furlough program;
- Larry Demery and Daniel Green, the men who murdered Michael Jordan’s father, James, in North Carolina. Green, an attempted axe murderer, had been released on parole after serving one-third of his sentence;
- Richard Allen Davis, the convict with a long history of violence who violated his parole by kidnapping and murdering 12-year-old Polly Klaas in 1993. 
These examples do not make an appearance in the Times’ story. Instead, Liptak insinuates American democracy virtually demands shorter sentences for murderers. He claims that support for the death penalty is slipping, leading to more life sentences. Curiously, the Gallup poll reports that two-thirds of Americans support the death penalty for murderers. The Times reporter must have missed this. Probably because he was worried in most un-liberal fashion, about the costs of incarceration. “By a conservative estimate,” Liptak writes, “it costs $3 billion a year to house America's lifers.” Releasing them early would spare taxpayers needless expense. In a scenario custom-made for Mona Charen’s Do Gooders, leftists argue for life in prison as an alternative to “barbaric” capital punishment, then they blame the additional costs on the Right. The remedy: shorter sentences.
Unwittingly, the Times has made a powerful argument for capital punishment. If the liberals' endgame is freeing all murderers (actually Angela Davis has campaign to do precisely that) then capital punishment would save society from that fate. On other hand, if the goal is to save money, executions cost less than housing, feeding, and caring for an inmate for 15 years. On the other hand, if our hope is to see that these inmates die in prison, the death penalty provides a more direct method to secure this end.
To follow the path laid out by the Left (and the Times) is to ignore the brutality of the offenders. Under their program even vicious murderers – people who fire three shotgun rounds into a pregnant fifteen year old and then drown them for good measure, Communist agents who try to assassinate the Pope, and sociopathic rapist/murderers like the BTK killer – should never spend more than 15 years in jail. After all that would deprive them of their opportunity to “grow.”
1. pp. 270-271.