Loughner spared. What about Joe?

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It sure seemed like a no-brainer to me for Jared Lee Loughner to avoid the death penalty in exchange for his guilty plea.

Here is a person who is profoundly mentally ill. That was clear when I first read of his troubled life. I knew he was bad news when I saw reports of his behavior in a Tucson junior college classroom. I knew this when I heard of his reason for stalking Rep. Gabrielle Giffords: She had ignored him at another political function. I assumed he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. Indeed, that’s what the court-appointed psychiatrist readily determined.

But my first thought when I heard the news Loughner has escaped the death penalty, was about Joe Corcoran. What about him? Why is this young man, just as mentally ill as Loughner, still facing the death penalty?

Loughner now has pleaded guilty to killing six people at a Tucson shopping center parking lot, plus injuring 14 others. He nearly killed the congresswoman. Joe, in 1997, shot and killed his brother Jim and three of Jim’s friends as they watched a ball game on TV.

Since the announcement of Loughner’s plea, friends and family members of the victims say they’re satisfied that he’ll be in prison for the rest of his life. It’s not that they’re all morally opposed to the death penalty. Maybe they understand his mental illness. Maybe they don’t.

What they surely grasp is that the case will not be dragged out for years during appeals, reversals and more appeals. Consider the distress the repeated news stories inflicts on the surviving witnesses, friends and family members. A life sentence without parole offers
closure to all these people. They deserve not to be reminded of that sunny January day in 2011.

My hunch is that this is what family members of Joe Corcoran’s victims understood. Of the four or five who testified at Joe’s sentencing, only one wanted him executed. The others spoke of their personal loss and what their loved one meant to them.

Yet Joe’s case drags on. Superior Court Judge Fran Gull followed the jury’s recommendation
and sentenced him to die. (Although the foreman told me later he wouldn’t have objected if Gull had just give the young man a life sentence.) Then the case went to the state appeals courts, then back to Gull, then to the federal courts and back again.

All this since the 1999 sentencing. Here it is August, 2012. An attorney in the state defender’s office told me nobody knows when the case will finally be resolved.

I think I understand why so many people support the death penalty. Even in other Western countries that have abolished the ultimate sanction, many in the public believe in it. But most of us never meet anybody quite like Joe.

When I first interviewed him in the Allen County jail, I was struck by what a good-looking young fellow he was. But he showed no expression. He offered no explanation for killing his brother and the others. He added nothing to what he told the police: “They were talking about me.” He did want to tell me about his dreams. He feared that he was revealing his sexual secrets in his sleep to other inmates. He even proposed to his defense attorney, John Nimmo, that he have his tongue cut out. Then he’d agree to a plea bargain. Later, he changed his mind. So there would be a trial.

“He wanted to see the show,” Nimmo guessed.

Later, I went to visit him when he was on death row at the Michigan City prison. Head now shaved, overweight and still no affect, he had become even more of a zombie. Then he leaned forward and confided that he was getting messages from the CIA through his teeth. He wouldn’t say what the messages told him.

Recent months have brought news of more senseless killings. James Holmes, a Ph.D. student, opened fire on midnight theater-goers in Aurora, Colorado. This month, an Army veteran and white supremacist opened fire on worshippers at a Sikh temple in Milwaukee. This man then apparently turned his gun on himself.

In Indiana, some officials have begun questioning the wisdom of the death penalty. I wish that they were now having moral reservations about state-sanctioned killing. Probably not that. Rather, it’s the high cost of all these appeals where the state not only pays for the prosecutors but also for the defense, as well as the various experts both sides call in. In each case, it can run into the millions of dollars.

It’s never been demonstrated that the death penalty has made us any safer. More likely, it blunts our moral sensibilities, making us more indifferent to killings. But now we have one case where justice has been done. The state of Arizona has spared the life of Jared Loughner. Maybe he can make some use of his life in prison. Meantime, survivors of his rampage can find some peace. I wish I could say that about the survivors of Joe Corcoran’s killings.

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