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How much is a victim's life worth?


New York -- OF ALL THE questions we get asked in the newspaper business, perhaps the most slippery is the definition of news. The wise-guy answer -- "I know it when I see it" -- does not suffice. But in fact it is the closest thing to truth.

Readers know it when they see it, too. They may ask why it is of particular interest when a female violinist is murdered on the roof of the Metropolitan Opera House, and why it is not when a decomposing body is found in an abandoned building, but intuitively most know the answer. In a city in which there are, on average, six homicides each day, the ones that get more than a paragraph tend to be the killings in which the event is unusual or the victim compelling. In the measure of column inches, their deaths are given more weight.

If I have always had a vague unease about measuring the attributes of the dead before assigning a length to their stories, I am powerfully disturbed about doling out punishment to their killers in a similar way. The Supreme Court, in a reversal of its earlier rulings, said last week that juries that are deciding on the death penalty may consider the victim's character and the effect of the victim's death on others in deciding whether a murderer will be executed. I fear that they have sanctioned a system of comparative worth for the slain.

The case in question is exactly the sort of story that winds up on page one. Charisse Christopher, the young mother of two toddlers, was murdered with a butcher knife. Her daughter was also killed; her son survived.

The boy's grandmother testified that Nicholas cries for his mother and his little sister, that he sometimes says of the latter, "I'm worried about my Lacie."

The court had to consider whether such testimony during the penalty phase unfairly influenced the jury, which sentenced the killer to death. If it had not influenced them, they must all have been made of stone.

Several years ago I spent some time with a group of parents of murdered children. There is one thing you are certain of after you've listened to their stories, and that is that you have just had a glimpse of a special circle of hell.

A woman from that group said the other day that she was delighted by the court's decision. "Everything before was for the criminals," she said, echoing a sentiment that has become a constant refrain in this country. "Somebody had to stand up for the victim."

But while this decision may seem to place victim and killer on a more equal footing, what it could also come to mean is that some victims are more equal than others. The cries of Mrs. Christopher's small son damn her killer. What if she had been childless? What if her mother had not been articulate nor her child able to verbalize his bereavement?

I know people find it painful when the murder of their child receives no publicity and the murder of someone else's is mourned in a long feature story. How doubly hurtful to discover that the murder of a rootless son might be considered inherently less worthy of punishment than the murder of an accomplished daughter.

It puts me in mind of civil cases which seek damages for wrongful death. The family of the 30-year-old surgeon may receive millions, based upon future earning capabilities; the parents of a child whose promise was unplumbed may settle for much, much less. The system explicitly assesses how much a life is worth.

Now the system of sentencing a killer to death can do something similar. There are those who hail it as a victory for victims, giving them a human face. And any smart prosecutor already seeks to do that, to make the dead live again in the courtroom within the limits of judicial discretion.

But shifting the focus of the penalty phase in capital cases from the murder to its victim implicitly invites jurors to do something more than humanize.

I fear the result will be to render some victims less worthy than others, even if the pain their murders has caused reverberates as strongly for the family of a poor pregnant teen-ager as it does for the family of a privileged medical student. I fear that some crimes will be adjudged human interest murders, worthier of stop-the-presses penalties.

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