Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Out with a whimper

Michael Ross grew up on a farm in Brooklyn, Connecticut, not far from where I have some property. This morning, he fulfilled what has long been his ambition. He made history by becoming the first person put to death in Connecticut in 40 years.

Ross's story doesn't offer much extra help for death penalty opponents. He was white, privileged (his family's egg farm was successful and he graduated from Cornell University), had no horrific tale of abuse to tell (although who knows if he held some dark secret) and there is no doubt whatsoever of his guilt. He confessed to raping and killing eight girls and young women, and went on fully and publicly avowing his own guilt. And oh yes. He wanted the needle. He said he owed it to his victims' families, but nobody believed he was sincere. He always seemed remorseless, self-centered, and grandiose, wanting to be the center of attention, not caring for expiation.

He abducted his victims from the small towns of Lisbon and Canterbury, where I shop and eat in restaurants. (There isn't any place to do those things in Scotland.) These are still landscapes of woodlands, cornfields and dairy farms, the regional center of Jewett City somewhere between quaintness and decrepitude. Quiet, nondescript towns hardly anyone has heard of, though nowadays some phony Indians have built monumentally garish and inane casino resorts a few miles away, putting people to work at low wage jobs.

Ross got his chance on center stage in January, when he came within a few minutes of getting the needle. In the run up to the fateful date, the local news was about nothing else. At the Green Onion restaurant in Lisbon -- formica tables and a waitress who calls me "dear" -- the people were talking about it. The prevailing sentiment was that they didn't particularly care one way or another. The state can kill him if they want but he isn't worth the cost of the drugs. As it turned out, when the judge realized that his lawyer, in honoring his client's wishes, was working to bring about his execution rather than resisting it, the judge would not let it go forward. Michael's skyrocket was a dud. It took them a few more months to work out the legal kinks.

Today, the main event got less attention than the teaser. A few dozen people stood vigil outside the prison, mostly death penalty opponents, but the folks in Canterbury weren't all that interested. Maybe it's because they knew Michael wanted them to care. I heard some of the victims relatives interviewed on the radio. One said it didn't bring her any peace. Another, who had witnessed the procedure, as they call it, said she had hoped for "closure," but it just made her angry, to see him there sleeping peacefully, after the way her sister died.

I spent the day tilling and planting, building a gate to keep the antlered rats out of my corn and tomatoes. I thought about the teenagers I see walking or riding bicycles down those country roads, how the community -- so far away from the big events of the world, barely noticing that it's no longer 1954 -- would be ravaged and torn if one of those children were just to disappear, and then turn up so violated. Killing Michael Ross, obviously, couldn't bring those girls back. Instead, it just snatched them away again, blotted their memory with the muck of his death, made him important and grand, made us all a little bit like him, just the way he wanted it.

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