View Point

Saturday, February 27, 1999

Death penalty
is just wrong

By Donna Gordon Bair-Mundy


The Star-Bulletin's Feb. 13 edition reported that U.S. Attorney Steven Alm has decided to seek the death penalty for Richard Chong, a man who has committed multiple crimes over the years. I agree that Chong's crimes were despicable. However, execution is not the appropriate response.

Chong began breaking the law when he was still a young boy, around 10 years of age. He continued his criminal, violent behavior upon reaching adulthood.

Some would say that this is a prime case where the death penalty should be applied. I would argue that such an early start to his criminal activities warrants just the opposite.

The beginnings of Chong's criminal career give a clear indication that, whether the result of genetic abnormality, disease or an abusive home life, this man suffers from a severe deformity.

Those of us who are of a certain age remember the terrible images of children born to women who took thalidomide during pregnancy. Their limbs resembled flippers; their bodies were misshapen.

The man for whom Alm seeks the death penalty is no less deformed than those children. The difference is that Chong has a deformity of the mind.

Our laws clearly reflect an underlying respect for human life. They give credence to the option that it is wrong to willfully take the life of another, even if we feel wronged by that person.

Although the law permits some measure of violence in self-defense, such action is allowed only when there is imminent danger.

Society has the right to segregate Chong from the general population in order to protect the citizenry. For this purpose, we have extremely high-security prisons that offer no possibility of escape.

But protection of the general populace does not require that we take this man's life. If we truly value human beings, our collective actions should reflect this. A life, any human life, is far too precious to be discarded.

Some would argue that capital punishment serves as a deterrent to others. Such an argument does not bear up under scrutiny.

Committing an act of violence is not the product of the rational weighing of probable outcomes. The criminal doesn't sit down with a list of pros and cons, weighing each in light of potential benefits of the action.

In fact, I would suggest that the only real deterrent to crime is an internalized set of values that do not permit such an action.

There are those who would argue that a sense of justice demands that a man pay for his crimes. Chong showed no mercy to his victims; therefore, he deserves no mercy from us.

In response, I would refer to another case currently in the news. We have all read in horror about the terrible abuse of Reubyne Buentipo Jr., a young boy now in a vegetative state in an institution.

Although it seems repugnant to consider, if Reubyne had not been rendered vegetative, there is significant probability that later in life he, too, would have been brought before Alm or his prosecutorial colleagues within the criminal justice system.

Physical abuse of that magnitude does not produce a psychologically healthy human being. It produces an angry person with a high propensity for violence.

I do not know the circumstances of Chong's upbringing. But a boy beginning a criminal career so young indicates that something obviously went terribly wrong at an early age. And that something may well have been abuse.

I realize that some may take offense at my mentioning these two cases in the same commentary. But when you seek to execute someone like Richard Chong, it is not unlikely that you are executing a Reubyne Buentipo.

We are all dismayed by the high rate of violent crime in America. I join in a feeling of repugnance toward Chong's crimes. But I would suggest that the true measure of any civilized society is how it treats those who repel us, whose actions horrify us.

I respectfully ask that Alm reconsider his decision.

Donna Gordon Bair-Mundy is an instructor in the
Library and Information Science Program in the Information and
Computer Science Department at the University of Hawaii.

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