Comments from The Outpost

6 December 1996

by Dan Murphy

Good evening.

In the headlines much of this past week has been the death of John Salvi in Walpole prison last weekend. This one story raises or reminds us of any number of important questions about our actions and policies as a society.

Originally reported as a suicide, the situation in which Salvi was found certainly raised some doubts. Nonetheless, a preliminary report from the chief medical examiner's office confirmed suicide as the cause of death, and that's where the matter remains officially. Salvi's mental state, as best we know, makes the conclusion plausible, but that's not to say conclusive. If his death came at the hands of, or with the assistance of, other inmates, it is not surprising that officials would seek to avoid the effort and disruption of investigations, recriminations, and so forth.

Not that there won't be plenty of that as is. Salvi's family has alleged neglect by prison officials in the face of obvious need for psychological services and close monitoring. Gov. Weld has ordered an investigation, so Salvi's effect on society has not yet come to an end.

For indeed, another point of which the Salvi case reminds us is how we as a society give huge amounts of attention to and, typically, lavish great expense on those who have already injured it in some way. Salvi, after all, is without question, the murderer of two innocent women who happened to be in his line of fire when he went on his shooting spree at two women's clinics last year. As with other infamous crimes, we provided a very visible, lengthy, and expensive trial to consider the matter. Then, given the conclusions of the jury and the sentence of two life terms imposed by the judge, we prepared to provide him room and board in prison for however long he might live.

His family and others argue that he should have been provided with psychological services also, a benefit that comes at significant cost, and which many people who are NOT in prison and who have NOT committed any crimes are not provided and are unable to afford. Speaking of sanity, does it not seem like a lack of that quality to provide costly counseling services to some if and only if they commit a deadly crime against society?

However he died, Salvi and society are both better off for it having happened, some would argue. The families of his victims expressed their sense that the larger tragedy is only now fully concluded and that their own loved ones can only now truly rest in peace. Should Salvi have received the death penalty to begin with? Even if he had, he would still have been in jail at this time awaiting appeal, and any execution would be years off.

One might be justified in coming to the conclusion that we as a society just don't have any good way of dealing with those who commit the most violent and heinous of crimes. Come to think of it, perhaps suicide is the best way out in some of these cases. Recall the rules of ancient Rome where someone caught at a serious offense faced loss of life and family property if tried and convicted, but, by falling on their own sword, they could preserve their property for their family and descendants. We may consider ourselves far advanced from the civilization of that time, but when one considered the pain and suffering inflicted by our judicial system, both on the convicted and on their victims, the conclusion is inescapable that we have a very long way to go.

For this week, that's the view from the Outpost. For WMBR, this is Dan Murphy.

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