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Mercy For Malvo?
by Allan Bormel
31 December 2003The Law

In the words of Paul LaRuffa, "There are two people who committed the ultimate crime. One got the ultimate penalty, and one didn’t. I ask you why?"

After the Chesapeake, Virginia jury deciding the fate of Lee Boyd Malvo, the younger half of the Beltway Sniper team, voted to spare his life, Paul LaRuffa, who survived being shot by Malvo in September 2002 said, “There are two people who committed the ultimate crime. One got the ultimate penalty, and one didn’t. I ask you why?” Why indeed? One juror, Deborah Moulse, said, “It was his age, his background, his environment. The influence of John Muhammad – that was the biggest thing that helped me make my decision. He truly controlled his life.”

One can’t fault the jury. The pressure on them must have been enormous. The defense proposed multiple arguments to deflect the death sentence. Malvo was young, not fully formed, and therefore not responsible for his actions. We don’t execute children and Malvo – 17 at the time of the crime – if not a child is certainly not a mature adult. The definition as to what legally constitutes a child is subject to ongoing debate. Seventeen to nineteen year olds commit 10% of the 15,000 murders a year in this country.

The next argument had to do with Malvo’s sanity. The defense argued that even if Malvo isn’t legally insane his jailhouse drawings and confessions show someone who is severely unbalanced. We hesitate to execute the mentally ill.

The final, and most persuasive argument was the Svengali defense. Malvo was under complete mental control of the older John Muhammad – a trained killing machine – and therefore not responsible for his actions.

But do any of these explanations really explicate Lee Boyd Malvo? Malvo was either the shooter or the spotter in 13 shootings in the Washington, D.C. area, 10 of them fatal. The jurors struggled to fathom the wantonness of random killing. In our impotence to know the unknowable we render ourselves susceptible to imperfect explanations – any explanations – that bring some sense to senselessness.

It is difficult for a jury to impose the death penalty without understanding the “why” of the crime. Passion, revenge, robbery are understandable. Even al-Qaida-like religious fervor, abhorrent as it is, is understandable. Random merciless killing is not. He must be crazy, or too young to know what he was doing, or in a hypnotic-like trance. Director Mike Nichols once said, “If you think there’s good in everybody; you haven’t met everybody.”

Meet Lee Boyd Malvo. He grew up without a father, at times abandoned by his mother, and essentially traded to John Muhammad by his mother for illegal entry into this country. His notebooks in prison show a young man without a conscience  -- a textbook psychopath. He writes in one letter, “I play the stupid fool. Look at how I act and speak. Everybody underestimates me. … I love that, it gives me the edge I need to study, conquer and overcome.” Hardly the musings of someone not fully lucid.

What does every species seem to know, save our own? That the preservation of the colony is paramount, dominant to all other considerations. If an ant turns renegade and attacks members of his own species, the colony will swiftly eliminate the mutant ant. We humans sometimes seem to lack that basic sense of self-preservation.

One of the mantras of our non-judgmental age is, “Hate the act, not the person.” What nonsense. Without the person there is no act.

Is life imprisonment punishment enough? Some death penalty opponents will maintain that life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is actually a tougher sentence than death – that he will have to think about what he’s done every day for the rest of his life. Really? Ask Malvo which he prefers: life or death. I’ll bet he’ll take the choice his victims didn’t get to make.

Allan Bormel is a retired businessman and a freelance writer.

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