Crime and (Eventually, Maybe) Punishment

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The Oregonian’s Steve Duin had a cleverly crafted column this morning about the Randy Guzek case. It brought back a flood of memories.

On a summer night in 1987, Randy Guzek, then 18 years old, and two friends, Mark Wilson and Ross Cathey, knocked on the door of the Terrebonne home of Rod and Lois Houser. Guzek had been dating the Housers’ niece, but the Housers didn’t approve of him. Guzek and his companions went to the Houser home that night intending to rob the couple.

When Rod Houser opened the door Wilson started firing. He ended up putting 22 slugs into his body. Guzek then executed Lois Houser with bullets to her head and heart.

I had been working at The Bulletin for less than two years at the time, and the shocking double murder was the biggest story the small-town paper had covered in decades – maybe ever.

Incredibly, after nearly 23 years the story is isn’t over yet.

Guzek and his companions were convicted of aggravated murder. The other two received life sentences; Guzek, as the ringleader, was sentenced to death by lethal injection. He appealed and got the sentence overturned.

There was another trial and another death penalty sentence. Guzek appealed again and won again. There was a third trial and a third death penalty sentence. And another successful appeal.

Now Randy Guzek is on trial for his life for the fourth time. A Deschutes County jury will decide whether he finally dies or spends the rest of his life in prison.

Or maybe it won’t decide; there’s always the chance of yet another appeal and another trial.

In his column Duin argues emotionally, and powerfully, that we need to get this ordeal over with. “Guzek is angling for a life sentence,” he writes. “Everyone who knew the Housers, or stumbled upon what was left of them, is already serving one.” It’s long past time, Duin seems to say, “to give Guzek the lethal injection he so richly deserves.”

Does Guzek, “richly deserve” death, as Duin says? Probably he does, although I like to be a little cautious about claiming I know who deserves to live and who deserves to die.

Beyond the question of whether Guzek deserves to die is the question of whether his death, after all these years, would serve any purpose. It might give satisfaction to the friends and relatives of the Housers, certainly. And it would save the state the trouble and expense of another appeal and trial.

But if the idea of killing a murderer is to deter others from murdering, Guzek’s execution would do nothing. Twenty-three years is almost half a lifetime. After 23 years most people – including most would-be murderers – have forgotten who Guzek was and what he did.

It’s doubtful that the death penalty is an effective deterrent at all. Countries that have abolished it (Great Britain in 1971, Canada in 1976 and France in 1981, among many others) have not seen their murder rates soar. In the US, every single one of the 10 states with the highest murder rates employs the death penalty.

The larger argument aside, everybody agrees that for the death penalty to be an effective deterrent it has to be swift and sure. And in our system it’s anything but. Oregon has not executed anybody since 1997. There are 33 inmates now on Oregon’s Death Row; a couple of them have been there almost as long as Guzek.

Should we streamline the process, eliminate the appeals, strap convicted killers to the gurney and shoot ‘em the juice right in the courtroom as soon as the verdict comes in?

Well, that’d be one way of handling it – and if anything could be a deterrent, that would.

The only trouble is that, as many recent cases have shown, the wrong people get convicted surprisingly often. And the death penalty is extremely final. If we screw up, we don’t get any do-overs.

How about this: Suppose that, instead of a death sentence that might (or might not) get carried out after 20 or 30 years, we gave convicted killers a real, honest-to-god, no-bullshit life sentence. No parole, no time off for good behavior, no commutation, no appeal unless new evidence exonerating the defendant comes to light.

Commit murder, spend the rest of your life doing hard time – that’s it. No ifs, ands or buts. Swift and certain punishment.

At least it would be a lot more swift and certain than anything killers are getting in Oregon now.


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