Some people deserve to die. Jesse Timmendequas is one of those people.
In 1994, Timmendequas lured 7-year-old Megan Kanka to his home by saying he wanted to show her a puppy. He then raped her, beat her and strangled her with a belt. A day later, he led police to her body. His crimes lead to the passage of Megan’s Law.
But Jesse Timmendequas is not going to be executed for his crimes even though he was sentenced to death in 1997. Last month New Jersey became the first state in more than three decades to abolish the death penalty. A state commission ruled the punishment “inconsistent with evolving standards of decency.” Jesse Timmendequas’ death sentence – along with the death sentences of the other 12 prisoners on New Jersey’s death row – was commuted to life in prison.
The way I see it, the standards of decency, both in New Jersey and abroad, seem to be devolving rather than evolving. Society is breaking down, falling apart. The only way to halt the decline is to draw a clear line in the sand: some crimes are going to cost you your life. Serial rapists and murderers. People who commit heinous crimes against the young, the old, or the vulnerable. There is no place in society for these people. If civilization were a tree these are the diseased limbs that need pruning.
Wait-Comfortably-Until Death Row
Just down the hall from Jesse Timmendequas (on what’s now called “wait-comfortably-until-you-die row”) is Robert Marshall, subject of the best-selling book “Blind Faith.” Marshall, a once-prominent Toms River insurance broker was sentenced to death in 1986 for hiring three men to murder his wife, Maria, so he could collect $1.4 million in life insurance and begin a new life with another woman. Marshall, who maintains his innocence, also had his death sentence commuted to life in prison.
Death penalty opponents have a million arguments, the most significant being “we’ve taken dangerous criminals off the streets; do we really need to take their lives, too?” I say yes. A life in prison is still a life. You can still read, write, pray, meditate, whatever. You can still grow as a person, even behind bars. I don’t think hardcore criminals deserve the opportunity to grow. They certainly denied it of their victims. Death penalty opponents also contend that, once you factor in all the appeals, it is more expensive to execute a prisoner than to keep him or her in jail for life. If this is true, it says more about the flaws of our legal system than it does about the quest for true justice. Three strikes and you’re out, three appeals and you’re done. Why does it have to be more complicated than that?
Perhaps a just resolve to New Jersey’s death penalty ban would be to put the former Death Row prisoners back into general population. A guy who kills his wife for insurance money like Robert Marshall would probably be allowed to spend the rest of his life in jail. But a child rapist and murderer like Jesse Timmendequas wouldn’t last more than a year or two before the other inmates kill him, in some way that is decidedly cruel and unusual. That’s what happened to Jeffery Dahmer, who was beaten to death with a piece of gym equipment by a fellow inmate who believed he was doing “the work of God.” Harsh as it seems, perhaps that is what’s meant to happen. There is an honor among thieves; rapists and murderers, too. All agree that child molesters are the lowest of the low. Even the wicked have a moral code, a pecking order of bad, a line they won’t sink beneath. Elected officials and bleeding-heart bureaucrats may bungle it, but maybe the “prison justice” of convicted felons can set it right again.
Originally publish in Wayne TODAY, January 2008