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Natural born killers

Saturday, July 03, 1999

By Dennis Roddy

In a very few days, barring some unforeseeable intrusion of sanity, compassion, or common sense, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will assign a crew of strangers to walk into the "injection room" at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview and permanently correct Gary Heidnik, a madman of measureless depravity.

Heidnik kept women chained in the cellar of his Philadelphia home, tortured and raped them, fed one to the others and ultimately killed two. That Heidnik is insane beyond all reckoning is not in doubt. The commonwealth's own psychiatric witness says Heidnik is a paranoid schizophrenic.

In truth, Heidnik is so mad that he has convinced himself that by being executed, he will stop all future executions, because he is also mad enough to believe he is innocent of the murders he committed. Even Gov. Ridge, his political antennae meticulously attuned to prevailing whims, could not credibly argue that Heidnik is a sane man who could have sanely done what he did and who sanely made the decision to forego any appeals on the grounds that his imaginary innocence will turn a blood-hungry public against the death penalty.

That Heidnik wants to die and that appeals courts, lost in the bizarre logic of death penalty law, will accommodate him, and that Gov. Ridge will gladly hasten this process -- all are beyond question. But Heidnik will mark Ridge's third assisted suicide in four years.

The first two, Keith Zettlemoyer and Leon Moser were, by turns, depressed and crazy. Zettlemoyer initially was offered a plea bargain. He landed on death row because he insisted on a trial and the death sentence was handed out by a jury that was not allowed to hear that life sentences in Pennsylvania have no parole.

Zettlemoyer finally gave up appeals after cracking under 22-hour-a-day isolation on death row. Among those opposing the execution was the mother of his victim, but this is not about making victims' families feel better.

Moser, a Vietnam veteran and former seminarian, ranted and raved about wanting to be executed from the moment he was arrested for gunning down his estranged wife and daughters outside a church. The psychiatrist who found him competent to face trial was the same one who let him out of a mental ward shortly before Moser committed the killings.

Moser was rushed into the execution chamber even as a federal judge tried to set up a competency hearing by telephone. No one in the governor's office felt it necessary to inform the judge's clerk that there was an open telephone line beside the injection table.

This is a state keen to kill. It makes us feel good to see a monster strapped down and turned off. In killing Heidnik, a certifiable monster, we will assuage, if momentarily, that part of us that writhes in fury at the thought of what some people are capable of doing to others.

That we have hurried him and his predecessors along with an isolation that seems designed to break the spirit does not appear to matter to us. That Heidnik does not seem to comprehend reality, that he is insane and appears to have been so when he did his horrible deeds, and that in killing him we are doing nothing to avoid the emergence of tomorrow's madmen, means nothing to us.

Insane or mentally impaired killers who possess no capacity for taking up their own cause are the easier kill. Calculated, cold-blooded killers who know how to work the system to their benefit are harder to eliminate, particularly if we insist, as a society, on imitating them.

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