The difference between one and ten

Last week, Dennis Rader, better known by his chosen pseudonym of “BTK,” was sentenced to ten consecutive life sentences for a series of brutal murders committed in Kansas over a period of over twenty years starting in the early 1970s.

As I moved across the country this last week, I caught a bit of a discussion on CNN with a guest commentator, I believe an attorney, decrying the fact that Rader was not eligible for the death penalty. That sentence was not an option in his case because, at the time his crimes were committed, Kansas did not have the death penalty. The attorney’s protests against allowing Rader to live in prison, however, disturbed me greatly. He claimed that Rader would have gotten a life sentence for one murder, so to simply add more life sentences for the other nine murders for which he was being sentenced was essentially not punishing him for those murders—that his life sentence simply wasn’t bad enough.

He also postulated that other murderers could say, “Wait a minute, if you didn’t kill Dennis Rader for killing ten women, how could you possibly put me to death for killing only eight?” The failure of the state of Kansas to put Dennis Rader to death, therefore, would lead to scores of murderers escaping the long arm of justice.

The most immediate reaction I had to the objections was that imposing more than one life sentence is different than only one, in a number of ways. First of all, it can be taken as a sense of closure for a victim’s family to have a charge and a sentence that are specifically for their relative. Being sentenced to multiple life terms also changes the potential terms of parole—in Kansas, as well as two other states, all life terms include the possibility of parole. One life sentence, therefore, would put Rader up for parole in only 15 years. With multiple life terms, there are two options for how the sentences would be served—were Rader serving all ten terms concurrently, he would be eligible for a parole hearing in 15 years, but the number of terms he was serving would be a factor taken into account at any such hearing, making it much more difficult to be granted parole. The judge, however, sentenced Rader to serve his terms consecutively—meaning that he is not eligible for parole until 175 years from now; 15 years each for nine victims and 40 years for the tenth, as the judge considered that crime to be particularly heinous.

In a more abstract sense, however, the feeling that somehow Rader isn’t being punished enough—that to be fair, we would have to kill him—unsettles me greatly. On the most superficial level, even putting Rader to death doesn’t meet the “eye for an eye” philosophy that the sentiment implies. To truly mete out a punishment equal to his offenses, the state of Kansas would have to kill Rader ten times.

So facing that obvious impossibility, what is the state to do? What if we could bring Rader to the brink of death, in the same way that he strangled his victims, only to painstakingly revive him only to torture him again? Can’t we cause him more pain, perhaps to also compensate for the pain that the families and friends of all his victims went through—some creative torture, perhaps? Or make it truly an eye for an eye, and pick out his ten dearest friends and relatives and torture them to death too, before finally putting him to death?

I don’t mean to be flippant about the pain that Rader has caused scores of people over the last few decades, and I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone who lost someone close to them for wanting to torture Rader themselves. If a family member of mine was murdered, I am sure that I would want nothing more than to cause as much pain to their murderer as I possibly could. I can’t imagine the pain that the relatives of Rader’s victims went through, particularly as he was caught so long after most of his crimes were committed, and in a way I can understand the feeling that the amount of pain he has caused is so much greater than the amount of punishment he will experience.

The American justice system, however, is not meant to be an equalizer of pain. That would be an entirely fruitless enterprise, and the job of the government is not to try to be some kind of karmic insurance that you will get back what you put out.

Rather, the point of the justice system is twofold. In less serious offenses, at least in theory, rehabilitation is a worthy goal—trying to turn men and women from a life of harmful wrongdoing toward becoming productive members of society. For more heinous crimes, however, there is a sense of both punishment and protecting the larger society from dangerous and perhaps irredeemable members. We cannot inflict a punishment upon Dennis Rader equal to the harm he has caused, but we can keep him from committing further harm. And in that sense, spending the rest of his life behind bars is just as effective a method as putting him to death.

Dennis Rader will never kill another woman in Kansas. Ten consecutive life sentences, each the consequence of one victim, ensures that. He was the source of more pain than he will ever probably experience, but that scale cannot be balanced by the efforts of the state of Kansas, and it seems impotent brutality to try.