Thursday, March 5 1998
Killing killer makes us killers

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Wilford Lee Berry
You probably have had it up to here with Wilford Lee Berry Jr.

Personally, I could live a happy life if I never saw his creepy face again. His picture has been everywhere over the past couple of weeks while we have been figuring out whether we're going to kill him. Fu Manchu mustache, glasses, weak smile, orange prison shirt.

This guy has been wanting to die since 1990, when he was convicted of murder. Actually, he wanted to die before then. When he was 9 years old, he tried to commit suicide. During a psychiatric test a few years later, he was asked to complete the sentence, ''Most mothers . . .'' His answer: ''beat their children.''

Good and evil

Well, who doesn't know somebody who had a tough childhood? And they grew up to be Eagle Scouts or doctors or just plain good citizens. Better than Wilford Berry, who admitted he killed his boss while he was robbing him. Furthermore, he has promised to kill again if he gets a chance. And he wants to be executed.

Regardless of what happened to him when he was a little kid, he is now a lethal 35-year-old man. There is such a thing as good and evil, right and wrong. Some people are bad. The rest of us are better than they are. We don't kill people.

Well, except for this, of course.

Lucasville, the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, is where Wilford Berry and 174 other men are scheduled to die. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled in December that he should be allowed to choose to die because ''to deny him that would be to incarcerate his spirit - the one thing that remains free and which the state need not and should not imprison.''

Most of us regular folks don't make such dainty distinctions. If we're willing to strap a person down on a table and commit a ritual killing before an audience, why should we worry about his free spirit?

Because of last-minute legal wrangling, Mr. Berry did not die Tuesday as scheduled. The original plan was for him to eat his final meal - lasagna and strawberry shortcake - early, about noon.

''It cuts back on the risk of complications with any drugs that are administered,'' a spokesperson said. Right. It would be unseemly to make the prisoner vomit before he dies.

While Wilford Berry was on the road to Lucasville, newspaper reporters were given punch and coffee and chocolate chip cookies. The state had provided 50 telephones and hookups for laptop computers in the prisoners' visiting room.

Cold, quiet protest

Outside, protesters gathered, woolly nobs, huddled against the bitter cold, sprouting signs. Only 13 of them - six against the death penalty, and seven for it. Shivering. And saying the things they have said dozens of times to scores of reporters.

Jana Minor, from Columbus, wishes she could have gotten hold of the 9-year-old Wilford Berry. ''We have to break the cycle of violence, and this is not the way to do it.''

Ten feet away is J.C. Burton of Oxford, whose two daughters and a granddaughter were murdered. ''I hope it happens to them,'' he says of death penalty opponents. ''Maybe they'd change their minds.'' And maybe they would.

Michael Dukakis was asked during the presidential debates in 1988 whether he would be opposed to capital punishment if his own wife were raped and murdered. He gave a startled and typically stiff reply.

Mr. Dukakis should have said that if such a horrible thing happened, he would want to kill the murderer with his own hands - but that society deserves better laws than ones made by an anguished man, angry and crazed by grief. That's what civilization is about.

No matter how it's tarted up with chocolate chip cookies and punch and coffee, killing a person is still an ugly and bizarre thing for us to do. Because this is not only about what happens to Wilford Berry.

It's what killing him makes of the rest of us.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at


Previous reports

State prepares to impose death Feb. 25, 1998
Prosecution could hinge on injuries, instructions Feb. 26, 1998
Lawyers: Berry not competent Feb. 27, 1998
Berry's execution delayed Feb. 28, 1998
Berry alters death row March 1, 1998
So murderer wants death? Make him live Cliff Radel column, March 2, 1998
Churches fight execution March 3, 1998
Judges give Berry 3 weeks March 3, 1998
Court refuses death request March 4, 1998