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Op-ed

Buffalo shooting makes a clear case for the death penalty | GUEST COMMENTARY

On Friday, 21 people were shot in three separate incidents in Milwaukee after a Bucks’ playoff game. On Saturday, police say a hate-filled teen-age racist massacred 10 citizens in Buffalo, New York. On Sunday, six people were injured and one killed in a mass shooting at a church in Laguna Woods, California.

These outrages call unmistakably for the death penalty, particularly for the perpetrator of the New York shootings.  The suspect’s intention, outlined in a lengthy manifesto posted online, was clear. The act, which police say he livestreamed, is also clear. Given these facts, there is no reasonable doubt about whether this 18-year-old man is guilty. He did it; he must pay for his acts. But, most important of all, the public must be protected from him and his kind.

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Surely, this is an example of evil personified. The trigger may have been his nauseating racism, but he enjoyed killing.

Police say the suspect fired indiscriminately in a supermarket, injuring 13 people, killing 10 of them.  According to one eye-witness account cited in news reports, the shooter “was laughing while he was being arrested.”  Clearly, there is no remorse,  no contrition. And, of course, there were the requisite friends who said they could never imagine that such a “normal guy” could do such a thing.

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That and related sentiments are irrelevant.  It doesn’t matter why he did it.

What then must we do?

Many criminal justice experts often assert that the  classic purposes of punishment include deterrence, rehabilitation, incapacitation and retribution, yet some who are averse to capital punishment reference only — or predominantly — rehabilitation. The bottom line is that the public must be protected from these monsters.  The public needs to see that the most awful, inexplicably terrorizing capital crimes will lead to the elimination of the perpetrators. That is the least we can do for their victims and future victims.

Yet, in many states, such as New York and Maryland, the death penalty has been abolished.

Perhaps some genius wordsmith can articulate for some gullible audience why the current murderous rampage should not warrant the death penalty.  The usual objection is reasonable doubt. There is no doubt in the current case that this person did it.

And spare us the arguments of mental health experts — too many of whom are consistently eager to label( and testify for) anyone who was sent to get psychiatric help as “mentally ill” and therefore either cognitively not able to understand the nature of what he or she has done or volitionally unable to control his or her behavior.  Clearly, those are both deceptions, what the late scholar Lon Fuller referred to as “legal fiction.” The scientific and statistical truth is that we cannot know who will harm self and others with an accuracy beyond that expected by chance. If they did it before, they can do it again. There should be no second chances.

Some yearn, as they surely will in the Buffalo case, for the mental illness excuse to eliminate criminal responsibility in all possible cases.  Has the perpetrator seen mental health professionals; has he been labelled as “mentally ill;” has he got a psychiatrist who says he was delusional? No matter.  All perpetrators have human agency.  Why did he do it? Because he wanted to kill.

The suspected shooter has been charged with first degree murder to which he has pleaded “not guilty.”

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The legal elements necessary to establish guilt and responsibility are well estblished, however: mens rea (the intention to commit the crime) and actus reus (the criminal act). The premeditation of this atrocity also is well-established.  The gunman loaded up to protect himself and record his actions for the ages by live-streaming his massacre and wearing body armor to render useless the brave security guard who fired a shot in self-defense. That and similar behavior constitute criminal intent.

Society must stand up and show its complete contempt and rejection for the Buffalo mass murderer.  We must protect ourselves from these killers clearly lacking a conscience, not pathologically, but socially. He should be, but won’t be, executed. Shame on New York, which does not have the option of putting him to death but which will house him for decades.  This man has forfeited his right to live by intentionally and premeditatedly mowing down over a dozen citizens.

Richard E. Vatz (rvatz@Towson.edu) is psychology editor of USA Today Magazine and political persuasion professor at Towson University. Jeffrey Alfred Schaler (ijas@icloud.com) Is a retired professor of Justice, Law and Society at American University’s School of Public Affairs, and a retired member of the psychology faculty at Johns Hopkins University. They are co-editors of “Thomas S. Szasz: the Man and His Ideas” (Transaction and Routledge, London, 2017) and authors of many pieces on psychiatry and the law.


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