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Jewish World Review July 24, 2000 / 21 Tamuz, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports

The executioners who walk among us -- COLUMBUS, Ohio | I am a strong proponent of the death penalty. I think that for certain crimes, taking the criminal's life is a just and fitting response by society.

I believe that, rather than eliminating the death penalty, it should be expanded to encompass some crimes that are currently not considered capital offenses -- I think of some of the cases of the systematic torture of helpless children I have covered, and I see no reason why the torturers should be shown any mercy at all by society.

Having said that, I have been deeply moved and impressed by the excellent reporting by Chicago Tribune staff members, reporting that has shown how innocent people can end up on Death Row. Illinois Gov. George Ryan, in response, has declared a moratorium on executions in the state until such time that the system can be fixed, and I think the governor's decision is the proper one.

But favoring a moratorium is not the same thing as favoring doing away with the death penalty. People of good faith can disagree on this -- and I certainly respect those who think that my position is wrong.

Rather than talk about all of this in theory, though, let us look at a case that has unfolded this summer in the small north-central Ohio town of New Philadelphia.

I will tell you in advance that what the prosecutor in New Philadelphia said at the sentencing hearing this month will stop you in your tracks -- no matter what you think of her words.

But that comes later in the column.

On the evening of May 23, two girls from the area -- Elizabeth Reiser, 17, and Brandi Hicks, 18 -- were at a video-rental store in New Philadelphia. A man named Matthew Vaca, 27, told them that he had no way to get to his home. He said that he would pay them $20 if they would give him a ride.

The girls were members of a church group that taught that they should always help others in need. So they agreed to give Vaca the ride.

In the car, Vaca provided varying directions on where he wanted to be dropped off. The girls, sensing something was wrong, stopped the car and asked Vaca to leave.

He pulled out a gun. He pointed the gun at the girls and ordered Brandi Hicks to drive her car to an isolated field.

He tied her to the steering wheel of her car. Then he led her friend Elizabeth Reiser into the field.

Using a linoleum-cutting knife, he slashed Reiser's neck at least three times. He took the blade and cut a 10-inch long, 21/2-inch-deep wound across her throat, severing her trachea. He stabbed her in the neck, the back, and -- five times -- in the scalp.

Vaca then got Brandi Hicks from the car, walked her into the woods, and made her see for herself that her best friend was dead.

Vaca led Hicks back to her car. He drove to a railroad car on a track near New Philadelphia. He made her carry a six-pack of beer for him. In the railroad car he attempted to sexually assault her. On a trestle above the Tuscarawas River, Vaca attempted to snap the girl's neck.

Brandi Hicks passed out -- and then pretended that she was dead. Vaca pushed her off the trestle and into the river. She floated in the water, not wanting Vaca to believe that she was still alive. She could see him on the trestle, kicking stones into the water and smoking cigarettes. After Vaca finally left the trestle, Hicks waited to make certain he was gone, then crawled up on a river bank and managed to motion for help to a car that was passing by.

All of this came out in open court this summer. Brandi Hicks was there, as were the families of both girls.

This was not a death penalty case. The reason was that prosecutor Amanda Spies Bornhorst did not want to put the families through the endless appeals that inevitably follow capital convictions. "The death penalty does not provide the swift justice it was intended to," Bornhorst said. "Do I think you deserve to die for the crimes you committed? Absolutely."

She allowed Vaca to plead guilty in exchange for what is in effect a life sentence -- he will first be eligible for parole in 2096.

And here is what the prosecutor said to Matthew Vaca in open court:

"I want you to understand what you have to look forward to [in prison]. You will be beaten repeatedly. And you will be brutally raped. And you will lose every ounce of dignity that you have left in your body.

"And you will live in terror -- not for the hour or so that Liz Reiser did, or for the hour that Brandi Hicks did, but for every minute for the rest of your life."

Too tough? Insensitive? Unforgiving? Cruel?

Each reader can make up his or her own mind about that. But Matthew Vaca has been allowed to live. That is a consideration he never gave Elizabeth Reiser -- and that he thought he wasn't giving Brandi Hicks.

Executions? They go on in this country every day. They are carried out by people like Matthew Vaca -- executioners like Vaca who administer the death penalty just because they choose to. And for their victims -- for Elizabeth Reiser, and all the innocent people like her -- there are no candlelight vigils before they are killed. They are not offered their choice of a last meal.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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