While I took an afternoon nap, serial killer Danny Rolling was killed by the State of Florida. Sixteen years ago in Gainesville, FL, Rolling went on a killing spree, murdering and mutilating five college students.
I graduated from the University of Florida in 2001. A decade after the murders, you would meet someone–a grad student, a law student, a native–who had a story about that weekend. They made it sound scary as hell.
Anyone who’s lived in Gainesville or even spent some time there will be familiar with the 34th Street mural wall. One panel of the wall is dedicated to the victims of the slaying: Sonja Larson, Christina Powell, Christa Hoyt, Tracy Paules, and Manuel Taboada. The panel seems to be repainted annually; sometimes due to vandalism.
These murders were horrific, terrible crimes; random and indeterminate, but premeditated nonetheless. Rolling mutilated the corpses, beheading one of them; he also took body parts from the victims. There is no doubt in my mind that this man was a monster, a killer out of the woods like Grendel. And he got exactly what he wanted: fame and infamy and attention. He channeled hell and brought it to earth; I’m sure that hell still exists for some of his victim’s families to this day. Pragmatically, it is right and proper that Rolling be executed.
I still find myself opposed to the death penalty. I don’t pity Rolling and I don’t aim to add to his fame–but he has bought his fame by personifying abject horror, and this is Halloween horror-time. And as just and right as it seems that Rolling die, I still believe that it is wrong for our state government to kill him. I am not arguing that the death penalty is not a deterrent, or that the appeals process death row inmates go through is just as costly as life imprisonment; my argument is simple: murdering people is wrong. It is wrong and therefore against the law, so we (the “we” of community and society who consent to just government) do not kill. If we kill each other we cannot thrive. Rolling’s crime illustrates the human and social disruption of murder. These killings, these gruesome hyperboles of annihilation, show exactly why it is so important that government discontinue use of the death penalty.
Many, many times I have thought: “That person should be killed. That person should be shot.” I have had these murderous thoughts about awful psychopaths and child molesters and about people I am in strong disagreement with and people who have cut me off in traffic. I have had them in brief passing and I have concentrated on them with intensity, giving them much of my time. However, I know that these feelings are rooted in revenge fantasy and rotten wish-fulfillment. I think that when we buy into the death penalty as a punishment, we validate murder. We endorse a moral paradox: killing is wrong, so we will kill you. This type of social paradox becomes a vicious circle. The revenge cycle is metonymized so perfectly in everything from gang warfare to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Confronted with the sheer evidence of such futility and emptiness in violence, I think it only sensical and right that we choose to end capital punishment. Otherwise we only help to maintain the hell that Rolling has channelled, a hell we choose to keep.