A recent editorial in this paper labeled young Benjamin Stibbe of Grafton a “serial killer” and urged that he be imprisoned and never permitted to walk the streets again. That term is generally used to apply to an individual who commits by his own hand or direction, intentional, pre-meditated murder of a number of innocent, unsuspecting victims. The crime charged against Mr. Stibbe doesn’t come close to that. And life without parole would be an excessive and unwise (not to mention impossible) sentence, for several reasons.
1. The death of a 17 year old girl from heroin injection that occasioned the charge against Stibbe followed knowing self-injection by the deceased. Stibbe was requested, by the deceased, and her friend, to help them get some heroin, which he apparently did, without compensation, other than a single “hit” for his own habit. There was no intent to cause death or injury. Stibbe had no direct hand in the deaths, and was not even present when the heroin was injected or the death occurred. Did a crime occur? Yes. But sentencing should take into consideration these important factors if our justice system is to retain respect from reasonable, thoughtful citizens with a sense of perspective.
2. The sentence urged by the editorial is equivalent to the most severe sentence possible for the most egregious, heinous, murderous crimes. Jesse Anderson of Cedarburg coldly, with premeditation, plunged a specially selected blade through the eye and into the brain of his unsuspecting wife, after a restaurant dinner, and then implemented his inept, contemptible plan to place suspicion for the murder on a “young black male”. Jeffrey Dahmer and Ed Gein lured one innocent and unsuspecting victim after another to their nightmares of slaughter. Those are crimes that reasonably call for imprisonment with no release ever. A middle-aged male Mequon resident, who recently strangled his quiet well-liked wife in the living room while their children slept, was permitted to plead guilty to “reckless homicide”. That’s the same charge for which Stibbe now faces sentencing.
3. If the sentence urged by the editorial is imposed on Stibbe, what would discourage someone else (who is also complicit in illegal drug use that results in the unintended death of a willing participant) from murdering another surviving participant in order to eliminate a witness who might be used in a prosecution that could result in a sentence of life without parole just for having been there? That partly explains why the maximum sentence permitted for “reckless homicide”, under the worst circumstances, is 60 years.
4. Stibbe has pled guilty and expressed remorse. Unless we want all prosecutions to proceed to jury trials, and we want to discourage guilty persons from ever admitting their guilt, a responsible judge would impose a reasonable sentence, not a maximum one, and consider the possibility of rehabilitation and the need for treatment.
5. Recently, a middle-aged man sought a “hit man” to kidnap his wife, strip her and beat her severely, stuff her in the trunk of a car, and abandon it in a hidden location, with the intent (if you believe that) to drive her insane. Police, acting on a tip, arrested the man. The sentence imposed in Ozaukee County for this cowardly, brutal, life-threatening attempted crime was six months in jail with work release. How can the court rationalize that Stibbe’s sentence should be any greater than for this premeditated cruelty?
6. A drunk driver who killed two completely innocent babies was recently sentenced in Ozaukee County to 8 years in prison. What sentence would be imposed here upon an alcoholic who brought a bottle of booze to an under-aged drunk who later went out and killed herself in a single vehicle “accident”? Is community outrage, and Stibbe’s sentence to be based upon the particular chemical to which he is addicted?
America now imprisons a higher percentage of its people than any other country on earth. We have achieved this distinction since declaring and waging the ineffective, failed, punitive War on Drugs. Addiction and substance abuse treatment programs (that have been proven effective) cost taxpayers much less than incarceration. Yet intensive treatment programs are unfunded and unavailable for all but the wealthy. We ignore what works. We throw more and more addicts in prison, which doesn’t work. And we all indeed suffer the societal and personal consequences.
Does it sound to you like I am excusing the repeated, fatal errors in judgment Stibbe made? Well, I’m not. Am I excusing his behavior because he’s an addict and may have diminished cognitive capacity as a result? Nope. Can anyone advocate that the judicial system, given the current law, should not sentence Stibbe to prison when that tragic heroin overdose death took a 17 year old high school girl, and this MAY not even be the first time that a person connected with him has died of heroin? Not me.
A crime was committed, yes. But not by a “serial killer”. A prison sentence is appropriate under the law. But not life without possibility of parole. Not hardly. Our courts need to treat addiction, rehabilitate bad judgment, fairly punish violation of law.
I’ll leave the sentencing to a judge, who hopefully will embody the wisdom of a civilization whose judgment has been tempered and improved by the discretion availed by the intervening thousands of years of history and judicial experience accumulated since the time of Solomon. We are supposed to learn and improve as we go, aren’t we?
If you’re thinking of doing heroin, crack, meth, etc., ask yourself first why they call it dope. And never forget that alcohol is implicated in far, far more tragic deaths, wife and child abuse, addiction, lost promise, and wasted lives, in America, than all other mind-altering substances combined.
Finally, we won’t solve this perennial problem by sacrificing yet another sorry, unfortunate scapegoat to satisfy our anger, our sorrow, our regret, our failure, and political opportunism.
July 11, 2006