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Pricing Murder


By Amy E. Schwartz

CLOSE WATCHERS of the tragedy of Joan Webster may remember a similar horror which splashed over the Eastern press in 1978--the brutal murder of 20-year-old Bonnie Jean Garland, then a junior at Yale University. While Joan's fate has been cloaked in mystery since she disappeared from Logan Airport last November, Bonnie's was all too clear. Her ex-boyfriend, himself a recent Yale graduate, killed her (with an axe) in mad jealousy at a new lover she had met on a tour with the Yale Glee Club, shortly after their breakup. He later told the court he couldn't stand to let her date another man.

Both young women were talented, attractive and popular, the embodiment of family hopes. Bonnic's parents were spared the Websters' long agony of uncertainly, but they suffered the doubts and delays of a comparable ordeal--fighting with a court system that repeatedly seemed about to let their daughter's murderer, Richard J. Herrin, slip through its fingers.

The Websters have passed the months without cracking their mask of endurance and restraint--recently posting a new reward for information on Joan, holding repeated press conferences to keep her case visible. But a footnote to Bonnic's case this week cast her bereaved parents in a slightly different light. After numerous legal battles, Herrin finally began serving an eight to 25-year jail term. Meanwhile, the Garlands initiated civil proceedings, suing their daughter's murderer for $2 million in damages for "emotional anguish" and funeral and medical bills. On Monday, a judge awarded them $40,000 in damages, plus another $15,000 in costs incurred by the murder.

Plenty of people would rejoice at the news that Herrin will pay for his deeds in money as well as time, and the reaction is thoroughly understandable. Herrin unquestionably caused the Garlands more pain than they can hope to avenge by any means; their only recourse seems to be to hurt him as much as possible.

But as usual when victims put a price tag on their pain, troubling questions arise. The problem is deeper than-just suspicion about the Garland's motives, though the protests that they sued for the gesture rather than the cash don't ring altogether true. What's harder to understand is the value that gesture can have when directed at a man already convicted, sentenced and serving time. In fact, the subtle distinction that saves the civil suit from constituting double jeopardy--that Herrin was convicted and jailed for murdering Bonnie, but sued and fined for causing her parents grief--is all too likely to escape him.

Once victims consider it necessary to file suits and bring subsidiary charges to punish perpetrators adequately, the idea of "punishment to fit the crime" has blurred beyond recognition. If Herrin begins to think he's being punished not because he killed Bonnie Garland but because funeral and medical costs were high, the already much-debated effect of a jail term on future actions will be further confused.

The Garlands' long struggle with the courts to put Herrin in jail may explain and even excuse their desire to hit him as hard as they can. But it would be a shame if the sympathy they deserve obscured the perception that lies behind their suit, that a criminal penalty somehow cannot punish "enough." It's all very well for murderers to have to foot the bill for funerals they caused, but that's not one of the hardier deterrents to a crime of passion.

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