Varying degrees of murder, but dead is dead

By Jayson Jacoby February 11, 2011 12:34 pm

The juxtaposition of the two murder stories was pure coincidence.

Publishing a newspaper has on occasion much in common with putting together a puzzle.

But with a couple of crucial differences.

Puzzles rarely come with deadlines, for one.

(Although I suppose there must be contests — in a world where Scrabble spawns events with hefty cash prizes, pretty much any activity is apt to be the subject of a competition.

Also, with a puzzle, unlike with a newspaper, you always know in advance the size and shape of each piece.

What happened as we assembled the Herald’s Jan. 21 issue is that on the cusp of our deadline we had only one page — 8A, to be specific — to finish.

Which meant that the continuation of the article about the guilty plea and sentencing of Kevin Michael Blankenship, which started on Page 1A, had to be wedged into the single remaining blank spot on Page 8A.

Blankenship shot to death his wife, Christina, on Aug. 25, 2010, inside their Baker City home.

There was already a murder story on Page 8A, this one from The Associated Press. Its subject is Patricia Krenwinkel, one of Charles Manson’s knife-wielding acolytes from that Helter Skelter summer of 1969.

As a general principle I figure one murder case per page is plenty.

But on Jan. 21 I hadn’t the time to find a story to replace the AP article and still meet the deadline.

The Page 8A that rolled off the press in La Grande was not, then, what I would have preferred.

Yet this unplanned confluence of stories made me think about how our society punishes murderers, a matter I doubt would have occurred to me had I had time to swap something else for that Manson article.

In particular I pondered how we tend to rate murders, if you will, to place each on a spectrum of horror.

It struck me that this tendency is not altogether a logical one.

The Krenwinkel article is ideal for such a comparison because it exemplifies our most extreme reaction to senseless killing.

Krenwinkel was 21 when she participated in both the Tate and LaBianca slayings, the Los Angeles murder spree in August 1969 that spawned “Helter Skelter,” the best-selling true crime book in history.

Krenwinkel has been in prison in California ever since — longer, in fact, than any other woman in the state’s penal system.

As the AP story noted, she’ll stay there at least until she’s 70. California’s parole board decided Krenwinkel won’t be eligible for parole for a minimum of seven more years.

The depravity of Krenwinkel’s acts is beyond question. Among Manson’s disciples, only Tex Watson administered more stab wounds.

But it seems clear that it’s not merely the vicious nature of Krenwinkel’s crimes, but also their notoriety, that is responsible for her record-setting stint in prison.

There can be little doubt that, had Krenwinkel killed in less titillating fashion, had she not belonged to a cult whose leader is very nearly as infamous as Hitler, then she would have been released from prison years, and perhaps decades, ago.

Yet her victims would be dead either way, their loss equally irreplaceable.

Now I understand the notion that some murderers remain a threat to society longer than others — forever, even — and so should remain in custody after others have been released.

Krenwinkel, though, according to the prison officials and psychologists who have examined her over the past four decades, could be a case study for the theory that criminals can be rehabilitated completely.

She has never been in trouble in prison.

She has earned degrees and extolled the dangers of drug use and expressed what seems to be genuine remorse for her monstrous acts.

No matter.

She’s a Manson girl. She laughed and doodled on paper during her trial as witnesses testified to her slaughter.

I’m not arguing that Krenwinkel deserves parole.

She doesn’t.

I think she should die in prison, just as her sister Mansonite, Susan Atkins, did in September 2009.

But Krenwinkel’s case reminds me that many other murderers, almost none of whom garnered anything like as much publicity, are punished far less severely.

Relatively few murderers serve 41 years in prison.

(Some, of course, are executed. Krenwinkel and the other Manson Family killers were sentenced to death too, but their sentences were commuted in 1972 when the California Supreme Court temporarily banned capital punishment.)

As for Blankenship, he won’t be eligible even to apply for parole for 25 years, and he couldn’t be released for at least 27 years.

He’ll be 78 then, older even than Krenwinkel will be when she can next ask to be released.

No one can say with any certainty whether Blankenship will ever go free.

He shouldn’t.

I would not be shocked, though, if he is granted parole, even though, actuarial tables being what they are, he would likely have less a decade of life left.

If Blankenship is released, while Krenwinkel lives out her days in prison, then an injustice will have been done.

The message society sends with such a scenario, it seems to me, is that some murder victims are, in effect, worth more than others.

But there are no degrees of dead, and no way to minimize murder.

I imagine that the people who loved Christina Dawn Blankenship would tell you that no murderer, no matter how infamous the misdeeds, deserved a greater punishment than the man who killed her.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.