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Misplaced Compassion An Affront

Jeff Jacoby Boston Globe

Reverend John Miller preached the sermon at the Martha’s Vineyard Tabernacle last Sunday. He told the congregation - which included the vacationing President Clinton - that capital punishment is wrong. “I invite you to look at a picture of Timothy McVeigh and to forgive him,” said Miller, a Rhode Island prison chaplain. “If we profess to be Christians, then we are called to love and forgive.” When the service let out, Miller, Clinton, and their wives got together for brunch at the Sweet Life Cafe in Oak Bluffs.

There will be no more Sunday brunches for Jeremy T. Charron. The 24-year-old Epsom, N.H., police officer was gunned down in cold blood just a few hours before Miller’s sermon on forgiving murderers. Sunday marked Charron’s 44th day as a full-time cop, the job he’d dreamed of since he was 6.

He leaves behind his parents, his grandparents, two brothers, two sisters, a wide circle of friends and admirers, and the girlfriend for whose engagement ring he had begun shopping. Maybe Rev. Miller would advise them to look at pictures of Gordon Perry, the robber accused of pumping the bullets into Charron’s heart, and Kevin Paul, his 18-year-old accomplice - and forgive.

New Hampshire, however, has opted not to forgive but to prosecute. Perry has been charged with capital murder. If he is convicted, the state will seek the death penalty for the first time since 1939. Jeanne Shaheen, the Democratic governor, says a capital murder prosecution will put criminals “on notice that if they kill a police officer in New Hampshire, they themselves will face the death penalty.”

And if they kill someone other than a police officer? Shouldn’t criminals be put on notice that they will face the death penalty if they kill a cashier in cold blood? Or a teacher? Or a farmer?

They should - but the law says otherwise. In New Hampshire, as in all of the 38 states with death penalty statutes, murder can be punished with execution only in specific circumstances, the murder of a police officer in the line of duty being one of them. (Among the others are murder combined with rape, murder for hire, and murder in the course of a kidnapping.) “Mere” first-degree murder, unlike capital murder, is not punishable by death.

Because it is instinctively understood as an attack on the law itself, cop-killing is especially heinous. A gunman who fires at a policeman threatens us all, for he is also firing at our line of defense against barbarity and unchecked violence.

But does the grief of a murder victim’s friends and family vary with his job? When a taxi driver or shop owner is murdered - and taxi drivers and shop owners are murdered much more often than police officers - the tears shed by his children are just as hot as those that follow the slaughter of a policeman. The hole ripped in their lives is just as jagged.

Then again, if the law seems to regard the blood of police as redder than everybody else’s, perhaps it’s because police officers express their anguish at the murder of a colleague so loudly and clearly that lawmakers cannot help but take notice.

Just five days before Jeremy Charron was killed in Epsom, there was another shootout in New Hampshire. In the small town of Colebrook near the Canadian border, an eccentric went on a rampage. He killed two state troopers, Leslie Lord and Scott Phillips; a lawyer, Vickie Bunnel; and a newspaper editor, Dennis Joos. By some horrific fluke, lightning struck the same tiny state twice in one week, but that isn’t the point. This is: Within hours of the murder of Lord and Phillips, law enforcement officers by the thousands were pouring into New Hampshire to pay their respects. At the troopers’ funeral last Saturday, row upon row of uniformed officers from across the country stood at attention.

Police officers (and firefighters) show up en masse every time one of their comrades is killed in the line of duty. Cops, God knows, have their flaws, but the solidarity they demonstrate when one of their number falls is profoundly moving and powerful. The message it drives home is not only that they grieve the slaying of a fellow officer, but that all of us must.

What of the others, then? Why didn’t thousands of lawyers pour into New Hampshire to attend Vickie Bunnell’s funeral? Why didn’t editors, reporters, and pressmen show up in force for Dennis Joos’ memorial service? When a taxi driver in Boston or Los Angeles is blown away by a robber, why don’t cabbies from around the nation come flooding into the city, lining every street for blocks as their colleague is laid to rest? When a cashier is killed in a holdup, why doesn’t every retailer in the state shut down for the funeral to show their sympathy and fury?

One who willfully murders a cashier is not less evil than the murderer of a state trooper. Both have committed the worst possible crime. Both should be subject to the worst possible punishment. That is justice.

But standing in the way of justice are the likes of Rev. Miller, who brim with such pity for criminals that they have none left over for victims. “Forgive Timothy McVeigh,” he says. As if we have that right.

Absolve the man who slaughtered 168 innocents in Oklahoma City? Pardon the killer of Officer Charron? Nothing could be more indecent. How sad that Miller, enjoying his brunch at the Sweet Life Cafe, should so lack compassion for the sweet life of others.

xxxx

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