I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Jimmy Lee Gray is a strong argument in favour of capital punishment. So too are John Straffen, Graeme Burton, and many others. All of them were convicted of murder, got out of custody, and killed again.
As death penalty advocates are quick to point out, if they had been executed for their initial killings several other people would still be alive. One website lists 59 convicted murderers in the U.S. who killed again between the mid-1960s and mid-1990s.
Jimmy Lee Gray
No tears were shed in September 1983 when Jimmy Lee Gray was gassed in the state prison at Parchman, Mississippi, even though it was a gruesome business.
Not even Gray’s mother wept; she had earlier written to Governor William Winter and the Mississippi Supreme Court pleading that her son not be spared, saying that he “deserved to die.”
In 1968, Gray had murdered his 16-year-old girlfriend. He served seven years in an Arizona prison for that crime before he was paroled over the objection of the judge who sentenced him.
He was not long out of prison before he raped and murdered three-year-old Deressa Jean Seales in June 1976. The crime drew condemnation from all quarters in the U.S.
Jimmy Lee Gray’s end at the hands of a drunken executioner was messed up. It took him eight minutes to die in severe pain. But, as many observers noted, his death was no worse than the merciless violation of his child victim.
In July 1952, John Straffen was convicted by a jury in Winchester, England of murdering a schoolgirl and he was sentenced to hang. The Daily Mail reports that “The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the then home secretary Sir David Maxwell Fyfe on the grounds that Straffen was a ‘feeble-minded person.’ ”
He was incarcerated in Broadmoor, a hospital for the criminally insane. Within months of being put behind bars Straffen escaped from Broadmoor. Christopher Hudson, writing in The Daily Mail tells how Straffen “… sauntered into the nearby village of Arborfield and strangled five-year-old Linda Bowyer, who had been out riding her bike.”
He was quickly recaptured and spent the rest of his life under lock and key. He died in 2007 having set the record for the longest incarceration of a criminal in England, at 55 years.
In February 2010, Tom Whitehead wrote in The Telegraph that “Nearly 30 killers released from jail have gone on to kill again on Britain’s streets in the last decade, figures show.”
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It’s hard to think of a more peaceful place than New Zealand, but it too has its brushes with violent criminals. One such is Graeme Burton.
The Encyclopedia of New Zealand says that “he stabbed lighting technician Neville Anderson to death outside a Wellington nightclub in 1992 and was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. He was paroled in mid-2006.”
Within a few weeks of getting out of prison Burton had amassed an arsenal that included, says The New Zealand Herald “a Glock pistol, two rifles cut down to pistols, ammunition, knives, batons, a crossbow, kevlar helmet, a .22 rifle, and a telescopic sight.”
It wasn’t long before he shot and killed a mountain biker and wounded four others. The 36-year-old Burton got a 26-year sentence with no chance of parole.
The Encyclopedia of New Zealand notes that “At least 14 people with previous convictions for murder or manslaughter have killed again in New Zealand.”
Similar stories can be found in every other country.
Death Penalty Alternatives
Many murderers serve their time, are released into society, and never kill again. But, as we’ve seen, some have brutal instincts that cannot be controlled. How can you tell one from the other? The answer is that you can’t; not with 100 percent accuracy.
So, the argument goes, all murderers must be kept behind bars until they die. There are those who say this is a harsher punishment than humane execution. Some inmates clearly agree. According to the 2010 book Suicide and Self Harm in Prisons and Jails, prisoners on death row kill themselves at six times the rate of the general prison population. This may have a lot to do with living under the stress of knowing an execution date is going to be set at sometime.
The alternative of life without parole is known as LWOP among the justice system fraternity. It is, of course, also a death penalty; just slower than the needle. However, it does not violate the moral principle that it's wrong to deliberately take another person's life, no matter what the circumstances.
The big plus for LWOP is that it gives the falsely imprisoned a chance to prove their innocence and gain release. The Death Penalty Information Center tells us that “Since 1973, 157 people have been exonerated and freed from death row."
- According to Amnesty International, “At the end of 2018, 106 countries (a majority of the world’s states) had abolished the death penalty in law for all crimes, and 142 countries (more than two-thirds) had abolished the death penalty in law or practice.”
- There are more than 3,000 inmates awaiting execution in the United States.
- A report from the United States Sentencing Commission notes that of 25,400 inmates released from federal prisons in 2005, almost half (49.3%) had been rearrested within eight years. Denmark, which houses most prisoners in open custody in bungalows, has a recidivism rate of 27 percent. This suggests the U.S. prison system does a poor job of rehabilitating convicts.
Life Without Parole or Execution
- “An Eyewitness Recalls Death of Jimmy Gray.” Dan Lohwasser, United Press International, September 9, 1984.
- “Triple Child Killer Who Became Britain’s Longest Serving Prisoner Dies in Jail.” Mail Online, November 20, 2007.
- “A Short List of Murderers Released to Murder Again.” Pro Death Penalty Web Page, undated.
- “Killers Freed to Kill Again.” Tom Whitehead, The Telegraph, February 4, 2010.
- “Lifers Released on Licence to Kill Again.” Hayley Dixon, The Telegraph, September 16, 2013.
- “Graeme Burton, Multiple Murderer.” Encyclopedia of New Zealand, undated.
- “The Freedom Gamble.” Phil Taylor, The New Zealand Herald, January 13, 2007.
- “DNA Exonerations Nationwide.” The Innocence Project, October 26, 2015.
- “The Death Penalty Is Cruel. But So Is Life Without Parole.” Stephen Lurie, New Republic, June 16, 2015.
- “Recidivism among Federal Offenders: A Comprehensive Overview.” U.S. Sentencing Commission, 2016.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor