Friday, June 5, 2009

The Officer James Williams Memorial Overpass... and its connection to the death penalty

By Mark Ross, Contributing Writer

Driving along the communication trench we call Highway 580... west of High Street and East of Fruitvale... you'll see, on either right-hand embankment, a CalTrans sign naming the bridge that 38th Avenue takes over the freeway.  The story behind this obscure memorial brings to light several issues currently in play in today's Oakland.

Early on the morning of January 10, 1999, Officer Williams was fatally wounded while searching in the landscaping along Highway 580 for a discarded shotgun.  The assailant stood on the 38th Ave. overpass... from where he fired his illegal AK-47 communist bloc full automatic military rifle.  Officer Williams was killed and another policeman was injured after his hand cuff case deflected the round.

Later that day a wannabe 19-year-old gang-banger named Chad Rhodes was arrested without reported incident.  Mr. Rhodes has never and will never see the streets of Oakland again.  He pled guilty to avoid the death penalty.

Early that same morning, at about 12:45 am, I awoke from a sound sleep to hear the gunshots that killed Officer Williams.  At the time I had no idea if anybody had actually been shot... but I did know that the weapon was firing in full automatic mode... unusual, even for Oakland.  During Chinese New Year and July Fourth I like to tweak out of town visitors by telling them:  "Here, in Oakland, we like to say 'I sure hope that's firecrackers.'"

Western civilization is supposed to place a high value on human life.  In this case Mr. Rhodes, obviously without serious consideration, took the life of another and turned himself into a potted plant.  There's stupid and then there's DANGEROUS stupid.  In this modern world, and 1999 wasn't that long ago, how can such stupid people emerge from our collective bosom?  The Black Avenger, Ken Hamblin, called these folks "feral humans."  He emphasized the difference between breeding and giving birth.  We're supposed to grow up... and this with the assistance of parents... not street thugs.

We recently saw a parole violator, when the walls started to close in, kill four cops before others killed him.  That was, at least (and in the words of Boris Karloff in "The Tower of London") in hot blood... panic and frenzy.  Mr. Rhodes was in no danger... no panic.  It is said that he was part of the crew that tossed the shotgun.  It's hard to link a shotgun to a crime after the fact.  But he killed Officer Williams and intended to kill several other police if he could have... just to keep them away from the gun?  Maybe just because, in his defective mind, he thought he could get away with it.

Those who argue that the death penalty is not a real deterrent should take note that in this case and in several other higher profile cases in other states (viz. The Green River Killings and the ABC Killings) prosecutors have extracted guilty pleas in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table.

What is wrong with the death penalty is that it is too often used as a political device in lieu of actual law enforcement.  Rape, even without other injury, used to be a capital crime in some states.  Guess what?  Juries had a really hard time convicting even with absolutely convincing evidence.  When we were having serious urban drug wars (like, we're not now) dimwit politicians were advocating the execution of drug "king pins" should they have the temerity to sell a joint to an underage school child.

The other fault with the death penalty in California is that there's really no such thing.  I'm guessing here... but it's a safe guess... that the average life span of someone sentenced to death is longer than that of the average citizen on the street.  They (the condemned) live in a really protected environment.

Were I to be gubernator I would review the cases of all death row inmates.  I'd throw out some convictions, order new trials for others and commute some sentences to life with or without the possibility of parole.  The remaining, say, third would have their sentences carried out at the rate of four a week.  Two on Tuesday and two on Friday... until no one was left on death row.  Without a backlog and without the possibility of eternal appeal the deterrence would be felt on the street.  After all, Mr. Felon, should you pull that trigger and, likely as not, wind up in court and be convicted... YOU'RE NEXT.  Now, that's deterrence.

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