By James Rowen for   Published Dec 20, 2005 at 5:03 AM

The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, its advertisers or editorial staff.

State Sen. Tom Reynolds (R-West Allis) is the right wing's Comeback Kid these days.

Until this fall, Reynolds was best known for conducting overly personal interviews with applicants for staff jobs and urging higher speed limits to make life easier for inveterate speeders.

Even conservative talk radio was worrying that Reynolds might be too eccentric to win re-election in 2006 -- until the wily West Allis freshman went after a target that needed getting: the automatic, annual gas tax increase.

Reynolds paired up his penchant for lost causes (like taking on the highway lobby, and his party's leadership that loves the road-builder money) and the anti-tax fervor in southeast Wisconsin, and viola: Reynolds and some new-found allies drove the annual gas tax boost repeal through both the State Senate and Assembly. Now, talk radio is anointing Reynolds as a leader.

But Reynolds has also reverted to form with a quirky push to re-institute the Wisconsin death penalty -- something so alien to the state's culture that it has been off the books here since 1853. With its roots in southern slavery and Western frontier "justice,'' the death penalty is foreign to Wisconsin. Leave it to Tom Reynolds to get on a bandwagon best left in storage.

Reynolds said it was just a coincidence that circulated his proposal right after the horrible murder of Theresa Halbach -- a crime allegedly committed by Steven Avery, the man who spent 18 years in prison for a rape he did not commit.

What makes Reynolds' proposal look politically motivated is that Theresa Halbach's body was mutilated, and Reynolds' plan calls for the death penalty only in cases where a murder victim was sexually assaulted and mutilated (to date, there is no evidence that Theresa Halbach was sexually assaulted).

No one doubts that Theresa Halbach's murder was depraved and despicable and that the perpetrator should be punished.

But Reynolds' proposal brings with a host of problems and contradictions inherent in all capital punishment debates and actions.

There is the exorbitant financial cost required in capital trials, their lengthy appeals, for special inmate housing and the construction and staffing of something we don't have in Wisconsin: a death house.

There is also the likelihood of mistaken conviction and execution.

Capital punishment is not a proven crime deterrent but has used disproportionately against minorities and the poor. And so on.

But the biggest problem, and one that is highlighted by Reynolds' three-crimes-within-a-crime standard, is the impossibility of quantifying and grading some murders as more heinous and more harmful to society than others.

After all, who is to say that one victim's killing, or the suffering of certain victims' relatives and friends, is worthy of greater concern and state punishment than other murders, and other suffering?

Certainly a person who is murdered, raped and mutilated has undergone an unspeakable violation. But should the Legislature say that a person who is murdered and raped -- but whose corpse was not mutilated -- has suffered so much less that the perpetrator is not eligible for the death penalty?

There are states that make the killing of a police officer a capital offense. It's easy to see why -- but to the victim's family and friends, and to the larger community, is the murder of a minister, or a teacher, or a beloved grandparent, or an infant, of less consequence?

What about serial killers? What about mass murderers? Under Reynolds' plan, Jeffrey Dahmer would not have been eligible for the death penalty, and if you support capital punishment in Wisconsin, you'd think that Dahmer would be exhibit "A."

When legislators like Reynolds begin to rate and quantify victimization, they have lost the argument, because all murders are horrendous, and all murders cause suffering, and all murders harm society.

And while you're mulling over whether there are relevant distinctions between pre-meditated deaths, killings of passion, drunken driving vehicular homicides or accidental killings, don't forget that states with capital punishment list executions as homicides, too.

Few homicides are so well planned and so filled with contradictions as killings carried out to punish murderers.

In 1995, as an investigative reporter for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, I wrote a lengthy series of stories on capital punishment. This included extensive interviews with perpetrators, victims' families, clergy, scholars and prison officials.

I also witnessed an execution by lethal injection in the Texas State Penitentiary death house, in Huntsville.

Two interviews in particular have stuck with me, and I'll pass along the key elements from them to the reader, and to Sen. Reynolds, too.

The first was with the sister of a pregnant woman who had been murdered in her suburban Chicago home by a thrill-seeking neighbor. Under Illinois law, the perpetrator was eligible for the death penalty, though not under Reynolds plan. (If you are a death penalty proponent, figure that out.).

The victim's sister argued against putting the killer to death. She said that forcing the killer to endure the loss of freedom every day of his life in a maximum security prison setting meant a longer-lasting punishment than a shorter period of incarceration, followed by the death sentence, and therefore the end of his punishment.

The second interview offered a cautionary vision for Tom Reynolds and others in Wisconsin, where we don't legally kill people. Yet.

Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann noted that capital punishment requires the participation of many public servants, including police, lawyers, court personnel and jailers to charge, try, convict, house and ultimately execute the condemned.

It's something he didn't think should be made a part of the daily work life in the justice system.

"You're in on a killing," he said.

James Rowen is a Milwaukee writer and a former Milwaukee mayoral aide.

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