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Listening in while a man's fate is decided

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 6, 2000


Bennie Demps very likely will die Wednesday night soon after the 6 o'clock news starts.

The state Supreme Court shut the door on his last appeal late Monday, turning down every argument, claim, technicality, document, and split legal hair his beleaguered lawyers could offer.

Demps will die for participating in the killing of another prisoner. This is not an act that gets ordinary people outraged, like Ted Bundy's crimes.

Some will instead think Demps did us a favor, by saving on the upkeep of one Alfred Sturgis as well as himself, all in one swoop. Demps and another prisoner helped hold down Sturgis while another inmate stabbed him to death.

Under these circumstances Demps' execution will get as much notice as a shuttle liftoff. Both acts are so routine that Floridians ignore them except in special circumstances.

But Demps is also a man.

Because he is, listening to the 45-minute debate before the Supreme Court early Monday morning was a brief, intense experience in absurdity.

The technology exists -- I employed it -- to listen to and watch the Supreme Court in Tallahassee from a PC on a desk in Tampa.

The technology exists -- the state employs it -- to make an execution as apparently benign an act as putting down a dog. The only difference is the dog is not despised.

The technology does not fail. But words do, when it comes to talking about killing a man.

The lawyers on Monday debated what happened in a lower appeals court, why an evidentiary hearing once granted was put off indefinitely, and what Demps' previous lawyers knew and when they knew it. Mostly the two sides went back and forth over a memo the defense had found from a top corrections official who reported that the murdered inmate, in his last words, named only one assailant, not Demps.

Explosive, the defense called it. Not worth a hill of beans, the prosecution said.

That was as lively, as real, as it got.

Otherwise, the lawyers and judges might as well have been debating whether a man had 10,000 hairs on his head, or 10,000 and one.

The arguments ended without a flourish, just a judge's voice trailing off at the microphone. Hours passed, and the court issued a 10-page ruling as emphatic as the slamming of a door. Being most modern people, wanting to educate and inform, the judges put the opinion on the Supreme Court Web site.

"The record shows that the trial court properly applied the law. ... We find Demps' remaining (ineffective assistance of counsel) claims and his petition for mandamus relief to be without merit."

And then, in solid capitals, the judges declared, "NO MOTION FOR REHEARING WILL BE ALLOWED."

Except for those big letters, telegraphing that somewhere a door was closing on Bennie Demps, the language was sanitized of all feeling.

This is what you do when you are doing your best to be civilized while discussing the most uncivilized thing, state-sanctioned killing.

You choke down all sentiment. You are frustrated, like Gov. Bush, at how long the process takes, in this case, five execution warrants and 25 years. You feel anger at this killing and two others for which Demps was sentenced to death but had the sentence commuted to life. You feel pity for the victims' survivors. And finally, you confront the deep ambivalence that arises when honorable people identify with the desire for revenge but still wonder if it is right to kill even the worst of men.

Is it?

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