Editorial: In a civilized society, not even the most vicious crimes justify a death sentence


It is soul-bruising to contemplate the torture that 10-year-old Anthony Avalos endured in his Lancaster home for more than a week before dying last year. Whippings with a looped cord and belt. Repeatedly held upside down then dropped on his head. Getting slammed into pieces of furniture and against the floor. Hot sauce poured on his face and mouth.

The road map of the abuse stretched from head to toe on his small malnourished body — bruises, abrasions, scabs and cuts visible on the outside. Traumatic brain injury and soft tissue damage on the inside. All allegedly perpetrated by his mother, Heather Barron, and her boyfriend, Kareem Leiva.

If ever a set of circumstances called for the death penalty, this would be it. Few were surprised when Los Angeles County prosecutors said Wednesday that if the couple is convicted of the torture-murder, the jury will be asked to recommend a death sentence.

Such cases try our convictions. In Pittsburgh, authorities say they, too, will seek the death penalty against Robert D. Bowers, the anti-Semite accused of murdering 11 people during a rampage last October at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Dylann Roof has already been sentenced to death for murdering nine African American worshipers at a Charleston, S.C., church in a sick effort to foment a race war. Prosecutors are also seeking the death penalty for Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. — the alleged Golden State Killer serial rapist and killer — if he is convicted of any of the 13 slayings of which he is accused.

All of these crimes were horrific acts. Yet, to execute the perpetrators would be wrong.

As a system, capital punishment is irredeemably broken. There have been too many proven cases of prosecutorial misconduct, mistaken witnesses — some intentionally, some not — and bad science that have led to the convictions of innocent people to have faith that others will not be wrongfully convicted and executed in the future.

Further, application of the death penalty falls disproportionately on the poor and minorities, a deadly continuation of the division that afflicts society as a whole. There isn’t even consistency in the decision to seek the death penalty, which requires a judgment call by prosecutors, so that a crime that draws a death sentence in Riverside County might not in Los Angeles County. That is the definition of arbitrary.

But let’s set aside that clear evidence of a broken system and return to the death of young Anthony. A mere child beaten and abused so badly and so often that it killed him. Such an atrocity tears at the heart and stirs a primal rage and a demand that justice — a life for a life — be done. But succumbing to that impulse is not justice. It is revenge. It is a formalized, state-sanctioned version of barbaric blood feuds, with a prosecutor, a robed judge and a panel of jurors meting out the punishment.


We must move beyond this, as most of the rest of the world has already done. We try to dress up executions as acceptable by using lethal drugs rather than supposedly more brutal methods. Yet, over the past year, three condemned men in Tennessee have opted for the electric chair out of fear that the state’s injection protocol would be more painful. And they had good cause — a number of people strapped into gurneys in other death chambers complained of excruciating burning sensations as they were killed with lethal injections. Some writhed in visible pain, according to witnesses.

There is no humane way to kill another human being.

We hear arguments that the condemned get what they deserve, that their suffering is minimal compared to that of their victims, that justice must be served and families must have closure. But it is barbaric to use violence as punishment. It is darkly absurd to, on the one hand, consider it a serious crime for someone to kill a fellow human being, and then turn around and kill that person. We don’t rob robbers; we don’t rape rapists; we shouldn’t kill killers.

Executions don’t send a message of deterrence. They embrace the very act we as a society purportedly abhor, the killing of another, and reflect a savage culture of violence and vengeance.