Published on Monday, March 5, 2001 in the New York Times
Cycle of Death
by Bob Herbert
This is not about Antonio Richardson, a convicted murderer who is scheduled to be executed by the State of Missouri early Wednesday morning. I've seen no evidence to indicate that Mr. Richardson was innocent, and he seems to have fully exercised his rights of appeal. So it's not about him.
This is about us.
Antonio Richardson was part of a group of two boys and two young men who raped and murdered two young women in St. Louis in 1991. The women were sisters — Robin Kerry, 19, and Julie Kerry, 20. After being sexually attacked, they were pushed off the Chain of Rocks Bridge and into the Mississippi River, where they drowned.
If you're going to have a death penalty, this would seem to be the kind of case in which you would use it.
But Ginny Kerry, the mother of the victims, has asked the governor of Missouri, Bob Holden, to stop the execution of Mr. Richardson. He was 16 at the time of the attack. He was not a ringleader of the group. And he is so mentally handicapped he is unable to say in which state he lives.
We can rid ourselves of Mr. Richardson by sticking a needle into him, as planned, at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday. But I would argue with Ginny Kerry that by killing him we'll succeed only in diminishing ourselves.
Mrs. Kerry told a local television station: "I think that Antonio Richardson is responsible for what he did. But I requested clemency for him because of his youth and his diminished mental capacity."
Over the past two years only the United States, Congo and Iran have executed people for offenses committed when they were juveniles. Most of the world has moved beyond this gruesome practice.
Antonio Richardson was not only a juvenile, but brain damaged and borderline mentally retarded as well. Those are not excuses for rape and murder. But the interests of justice are sufficiently served by imprisoning Mr. Richardson for life. Killing him takes us across the border into barbarism.
Mrs. Kerry's appeal for clemency required great courage. Others in her family, including her former husband, Dr. Richard Kerry, the father of the victims, have let Governor Holden know that they want the execution to go forward. And Mrs. Kerry herself is a supporter of the death penalty. But she believes that the two oldest members of the group that attacked her daughters — Marlin Gray, who was 23 at the time, and Reginald Clemens, who was 20 — were the ones primarily responsible.
Mrs. Kerry told The St. Louis Post- Dispatch, "I definitely believe that they led (Richardson) into doing what he did. I know that teenagers do stupid things because they're around the wrong people."
Gray and Clemens have both been sentenced to death. The fourth member of the group was Daniel Winfrey, who was 15 at the time. He made a deal with prosecutors in return for his testimony and was sentenced to a long prison term.
The death penalty is a pathetic and pointless exercise, a sadistic cycle consisting of the wanton destruction of life in retaliation for the wanton destruction of life. We can kill Antonio Richardson, but to what end? It may, for some, satisfy a need for vengeance. But as a society, are we interested in vengeance or justice? They are not compatible.
Absurdities abound. Even as the State of Missouri is preparing for the execution of Mr. Richardson, it is considering legislation that would outlaw the execution of people who are mentally handicapped. If that were the law in Missouri today, Mr. Richardson could not be executed.
Several states have already passed similar laws. Governor Holden, a Democrat, is pro-death penalty. But a spokesman told me on Friday, "He is in favor of a ban on executing the mentally retarded."
Mr. Richardson would be the 700th person executed in the United States since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. There were some pretty bad actors in that lengthy parade. But there were also people who were too damaged mentally to know what was going on, and others who were so poorly represented they never came close to getting a fair trial. And inevitably, I believe, there were people in that parade of death who were innocent.
Governor Holden has until tomorrow night to decide whether to intervene in the execution of Antonio Richardson.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company