Canadian serial killer Clifford Olson, the “Beast of BC”, is dead. Olson, who killed 11 children and youths between the ages of 9 and 18 years old in the early 1980s, died of cancer on Friday. He was apprehended, tried and found guilty of torturing, sexually assaulting and killing eight girls and three boys. Olson was sentenced in 1982 to 11 concurrent life sentences. He spent the rest of his life in prison until cancer took his life at age 71.
Cancer was Olson’s death penalty
In many U.S. states, Olson would surely have been executed for his crimes. In Canada, where the death penalty was abolished in 1976, that wasn’t an option. There was no doubt about his guilt. He even helped the police to locate the bodies of the victims they had not recovered (for which his wife received a controversial payment of $100,000). Olson never showed any remorse, has since claimed to have committed between 80 and 200 murders, and even admitted that he would likely kill again if released.
While in custody, Olson contracted colon cancer. He was operated on for colon cancer in 2004 and went into remission. In September 2011, the media reported that Olson had terminal cancer and had been transferred from prison to a hospital in Laval, Quebec where he died on September 30, 2011. Cancer was his death penalty.
The Canadian government didn’t need to murder Olson. Ensuring that he spent the remainder of his life in prison, designated as a dangerous offender, was sufficient to protect the public. The fact that the death penalty isn’t even an option in Canada ensures that people like Troy Davis, who may have been innocent, are never executed. We know Olson was guilty of his crimes, but there are other people who are found guilty where doubt still remains. The justice system is not perfect and execution is a very final solution.
Should we celebrate?
The concept of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life” brings out the vengeful side of justice. A more humanistic approach to justice would be to focus on protecting the public and correcting and rehabilitating offenders. The death penalty holds no value in that type of an approach to justice. The death penalty is only right if we believe, as a society, that the role of justice is vengeance. Capital punishment, like corporal punishment, legitimizes our own violent impulses under law and perpetuates societal acceptance of violence as a way of dealing with problems.
When Osama bin Laden was killed, people across the United States and around the world rejoiced. People gathered outside the White House waving flags, dancing and celebrating. Is this an appropriate way to act when someone is killed, even if that person was responsible for the deaths of many others? An NPR article examined this question and Christine Korsgaard, a Harvard philosophy professor who was quoted extensively in the article ultimately concluded that:
If we have any feeling of victory or triumph in the case, it should be because we have succeeded in disabling him — not because he is dead.
That triumph could equally have been achieved by apprehending Bin Laden. Ultimately, for Olson, we should have been celebrating the guilty verdict in 1982, but not his death.
Perhaps relief is the appropriate reaction
Some victims and families of victims feel like the death of offenders bring them peace. Sharon Rosenfeldt, the mother of one of Olson’s victims told the Montreal Gazette:
I feel like I haven’t been able to put him to rest, and maybe our little boy can have some peace now. It is like a grieving session 30 years later, like we have to let go of Daryn all over again.
That is certainly understandable, especially since Olson had a parole hearing every couple of years during which the families had to present their victim impact statements. Those hearings brought out the painful memories again and, although Olson’s chances of being granted parole were virtually non-existent, the remote possibility of it happening must have been gut wrenching for everyone involved.
With Olson in jail, I felt pretty certain that he was no longer a threat to the public. I feel the same way about other killers like Paul Bernardo and Russell Williams (who coincidentally went to college together). There is, of course, the remote chance that they will escape or be paroled, but ultimately I trust the justice system to protect us.
Perhaps instead of celebrating Olson’s death, we can be relieved that he is no longer among us, that he can no longer taunt the public and the families of his victims, and that there is no possibility he can ever harm the public again.
How do you react to the death of mass murderers and serial killers? Do you celebrate?
Photo credit: Mo Kaiwen on flickr