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Is the Tie Too Busy?

serial killers are different in kind: fry them

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, March 09, 1994.

Some years ago, one of the early TV talk show hosts, Tom Snyder, scored an alleged coup by putting Charles Manson on the show. A segment primarily designed for Snyder to flare his nostrils and exercise his eyebrows, the program was a huge rating hit with wide agreement of a journalistic coup. Yet, absolutely nothing of import emerged. Manson, you may recall, ran a gang of demented murderers and, while he himself never killed his most famous victims Sharon Tate and friends, he killed the next night and maybe as many as 50 people himself. Certifiably crazy, Manson escaped death in California when the death penalty was revoked. Wheeled out periodically for public show, Manson's case is more in the news these days because two or three of his gang members, all women, are up for parole. So is Manson, but the very thought of releasing him is so stupid, it seems to be fairly hard for the parole board to keep a straight face. Jay Leno, in fact, does a comedy bit about Manson getting ready for the parole board. "Gee, I don't know. Do you think this tie is too busy?"

Over in England, one of those tabloid wet-dreams is in full flower: a mass murderer complete with a Silence of the Lambs House of Horrors. So far, nine bodies have been found in this narrow town house; authorities expect to find about 20, perhaps more. The culprit is a pale, passive nonentity, the classic type complete with neighbors who thought him nice and quiet and who would have thought?

Last night here in the colonies, Jeffrey Dahmer, a convicted mass murderer and cannibal and necropheliac, was interviewed on NBC sitting next to his father, who is hawking a book, the proceeds of which go to the victims' families. Dahmer is eerie in his nothingness. There is nothing odd looking about him. He speaks normally, calmly. He describes horrible crimes more or less passively and convincingly. He makes no excuses. He doesn't understand why he does these things. But he enjoyed it; and he says he gets the same thrill just thinking about it and that he would do it again. Doesn't this guy watch TV? Didn't he see the Menendez trial? No troubled childhood. No abuse. What is it?

Also, Justice Harry Blackmun, once considered one of Nixon's appointment jokes and now regarded as a paragon of virtue, finally admits that the problems with capital punishment, taken in aggregate, nullify their fairness. Therefore, he says, the death penalty should be abolished.

And yet, Justice Blackmun, here we have three people, all white men, all except Manson from the middle classes, who with and without drugs, with and without alcohol, with and without abuse, murdered innocent people for no evident reason other than - and here is the horror - an impulse that became a biological need to murder in order to obtain basic sexual satisfaction. Can anyone detect a difference between these people and the others, like John Wayne Gacy, and some inner city minority child who joins a gang and, in the course of holding up a 7-11, kills a clerk? Well, you know, I think I can. While inner city life may become more and more numbing, these people are still not serial killers......yet. I myself do not feel that these three should be allowed to live or absorb tax dollars to be housed and fed.

Once you slice off serial killers, the rest of death row begins to look OK and, perhaps, savable. It costs about a quarter million dollars a year to keep someone on death row, and the notorious serial killers cost more because they need more protection. Here is a puzzler. Why don't the advocates for the death penalty vector in on cases on which most people could agree, properly informed. And why don't those who oppose it slice off their most difficult baggage. Calling a 17 year old gang member the same as Jeffrey Dahmer, which is how capital law views them, is absurd. Serial murder is a different crime in impetus and ken.

Oh, by the way. Gacy is going to fry this May. Hurry, you can view his paintings in a national tour, and you can listen to his voice on a 900 number, protesting his innocence. There is a court case pending about where the money should go. Even in death, Gacy will cost.