Sniper's Execution Set;Talking to Your Kids About Capital Punishment
The sniper who terrorized the greater Washington region with random killings in 2002 that left 10 people dead is now set to be executed Nov. 10--and you may find yourself in an unexpected conversation with your child about capital punishment.
This is one of those tough discussions whose timing is dictated by events outside the world of school, but it is no less important than any you have about science or math. Experts in child psychiatry say this is one of those conversations that can and should be shaped by your own beliefs.
The lead-up to the execution of John Allen Muhammad is bound to receive a lot of publicity--and many children will hear about it on television and perhaps in school.
Making the case particularly compelling to young people is the fact that one of the sniper victims was a 13-year-old boy shot on his way to school. (He survived.) In addition, Muhammad’s accomplice was 17 years old at the time of the murder spree and, his lawyers argued that he had been brainwashed by Muhammad.
Muhammad was convicted in 2003 and sentenced to death for killing Dean H. Meyers near Manassas in October 2002, one of the 10 sniper slayings that month. Accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for a sniper killing in Fairfax County.
Marilyn Benoit, past president of the Washington-based American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, said she expects that children aged 12 and up will be the most interested in learning about and discussing the execution.
Today's 12-year-olds were 5 years old at the time and will remember it, perhaps vividly, along with the school lockdowns and the fear that ran through the region, she said. Parents were petrified to allow their kids to walk around outside unprotected--and didn't want to be out there themselves.
“It is going to be something that each family has to handle according to their own belief system,” she said. “You have families who are pro and families who are against it. So you talk to your child about both views and explain yours.”
Benoit said that parents should make sure to explain the law to their children so that kids will understand why the government in American society executes certain criminals.
If you’re having trouble simplifying this emotionally fraught and complex issue into language that will make sense to kids, here are some suggestions on ways to phrase the ideas:
You can tell them that capital punishment is the ultimate penalty for committing particularly horrible crimes in the United States. Most executions have resulted from murder convictions, but the death sentence has been imposed on other crimes including kidnapping, rape and treason.
Many who oppose the death penalty say that it is cruel and that the government should not be killing people. Opponents also raise the issue of people who have been wrongly executed by the government.
Supporters say that anyone who takes the life of another person gives up their own right to stay alive and that it is in the government’s interest to rid society of killers. Some also say that capital punishment deters crime, though many researchers say that statistics do not support that argument.
Unless a court stops the execution, Muhammad will die at Jarratt’s Greensville Correctional Center in Virginia, which allows inmates to choose between lethal injection or the electric chair. Most have been carried out by injection.
September 16, 2009; 3:22 PM ET
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