Last week, Rhode Island announced that it will release Michael Woodmansee from prison this August, 12 years early, because of “good conduct.” He will have served 28 years of his 40-year sentence.
His crime? In 1975, Woodmansee tortured a neighbor’s 5-year-old son to death.
In addition to a boy dying under torture, a family was destroyed. First, the family endured eight years not knowing what had happened to their child — he had simply disappeared. When they finally found out what happened, the news was every parent’s worst nightmare come true — their son had not only been murdered, but had been made to suffer unspeakably. According to the boy’s older sister, the father became an alcoholic and the mother became chronically depressed. Asked on television how her childhood was, the daughter responded, “I didn’t have a childhood.”
For reasons that have always eluded me, many people believe that it is right, compassionate, just and moral to keep people like Woodmansee alive. It has long been clear to me that there is almost no issue — not abortion, same-sex marriage, the size of government, the war in Iraq, taxation, God’s existence, you name it — for which the gulf between people on opposite sides of an issue is as unbridgeable as on the issue of the death penalty for murderers.
Those of us who are for the death penalty are sickened that this man was not killed when first convicted. It sickens us that the family had to live with the daily reality that the torturer and murderer of their son was enjoying his meals, watching TV and sharing the camaraderie of his fellow inmates.
Anyone not sickened by all this not only has a different moral compass from proponents of the death penalty, he or she also has a different heart. Wanting to see all murderers kept alive is to inhabit a different emotional and moral universe from that of the proponents of the death penalty —and from that of the Torah..
Nor am I persuaded by the argument that we cannot execute any murderer, no matter how certain his guilt, because we might execute an innocent person. In America, that is so rare (if it has happened at all in the last half century) that the chances of executing an innocent person — actually executing an innocent person, not sentencing an innocent person to death — are much fewer than the chances of a convicted murderer murdering another prisoner, or murdering a prison guard, or escaping and murdering someone outside of prison. In other words, more innocents die with no capital punishment than with it.