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Cruel, but not unusual


Washington -- CHRISTOPHER THOMAS, 18, an escaped convict, shot and killed cab driver Oladepo Edu during the course of a holdup here last Jan. 31.

Edu left a wife and three children. Thomas was identified by witnesses, arrested and charged with murder. He pleaded guilty as charged.

There was no plea bargaining, no sympathetic jury to be swayed, no extenuating circumstance, no improperly admitted evidence. It was murder as bad as murder gets: Cold-blooded execution of a working man for the sake of a few bucks.

Judge Hariett Taylor sentenced Thomas to six years in prison. He'll be back on the street when he's 24.

This is not a mistake. The statutory sentence for armed murder in the District of Columbia is 15 years to life, with a five-year mandatory prison term. Life is cheap on the streets of Washington. Life also is cheap in its courts.

Ludicrous sentences like this -- which are the norm in America -- amplify the demand for the death penalty. There was much cheering a month ago when California finally and clumsily put murderer Robert Harris to death in its gas chamber for shooting two kids in another cheap robbery.

Yet on the weekend of May 16-17, three weeks after Harris went to his death in a publicity spectacular, Los Angeles County recorded 53 shootings in 48 hours, nine of them fatal. It was a perfectly normal weekend, said the Los Angeles Times. The Harris execution was the slightest deterrent.

Capital punishment may or may not be cruel, but it certainly is unusual -- and will remain so regardless of the yahoo yelping for death sentences. There is no way this country could execute enough criminals to make a difference. Can you imagine 2,000 electrocutions a year in New York state? Can you imagine even 20? Can you picture some 18-year-old flea-brained gunman hesitating to pull a trigger because he fears the electric chair?

The death penalty is great for exacting revenge on the few hapless culprits -- like Virginia murderer Roger Coleman -- who don't manage to beat the system. But you are deluding yourself if you think the execution of Roger Coleman or Robert Harris or any of the others who die gasping on gurneys or in the electric chair is going to make the streets any safer.

What's the alternative? War. We are at war in our cities. Armed men are murdering our citizens, and each other, at an unprecedented rate. We should, therefore, do what we did in Panama and Kuwait.

This need not be that intrusive. And it won't necessarily violate any rights. Airline passengers march through metal detectors on the way to their planes, implicitly surrendering their Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search. The airlines secured that protection because armed hijackers were costing them money.

Now our cities are being hijacked. So let's apply the same principle. Surround city blocks at key moments -- Friday nights at discotheque, say -- and march everybody through a metal detector. Is this an infringement of civil liberties? No more than going through security to get on an airliner. The lives of innumerable children are more important than any right not to be scanned by a magnetic detector.

Will we need the Army? Then let's use the Army. What else has it got to do? What threat do we face that is greater than walking down our own streets at night?

This may seem like a draconian measure to liberals. I reply: It is a lot less draconian than the electric chair, and it will make the cities a whole lot safer.

Lars-Erik Nelson is a syndicated columnist.

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