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The Post Standard/Herald-Journal

Prosecutor's Verdict On Death Penalty Is Mixed


4 May 2005
Copyright © 2005 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

John B. Stevens is an assistant U.S. attorney. His job is advising federal prosecutors across the nation on the best way of handling death penalty cases. While Stevens says he remains troubled by the idea of taking a human life, he also maintains it sometimes needs to be done.

Yet if he brings up the death penalty Friday at Hendricks Chapel, where he will serve as keynote speaker for the 57th annual commencement for University College of Syracuse University, Stevens said he will use it only as a way to get to tales of perseverance or courage that he's observed in tragedies.

"My personal feeling against the death penalty is that I wish we didn't have it, I really do," said Stevens, 52. "But I've come to believe there are evil people who, once they murder, will murder again. You have to consider the innocent lives in harm's way. That's where the death penalty has its value."

Many disagree. Earlier this week, a federal jury in Puerto Rico rejected death for two men convicted of killing a security guard, a case in which Stevens counseled the prosecution. The courtroom drama evoked high emotions on the island, where capital punishment has been banned for decades.

The decision hardly changed Stevens' mind. As an assistant U.S. attorney from Texas in the late 1990s, he helped prosecute two men sentenced to death for their role in the killing of James Byrd Jr., an African-American from Jasper, who died after he was chained to a pickup and then dragged behind the truck.

The assailants remain on death row. Stevens, a Democrat and a Roman Catholic, says he has debated bishops from within his church on the necessity of imposing death. Opponents of the death penalty argue that a society willing to kill its criminals sinks to the same violent level it abhors.

In response, Stevens recalls how he prosecuted Shannon Wayne Agofsky, who was sentenced to death in Texas last July for killing a fellow inmate. Agofsky had already been sentenced to life in prison, Stevens said, for drowning a bank president by taping him to a weighted chair and then dropping him from a bridge.

"What do you say in that case?" he asked. "Do you say (to the convict), "You get a free one?"'

Stevens was involved in the Byrd prosecution during most of his collegiate connection to Syracuse. From 1998 through 2000, Stevens spent two weeks of every summer here while he worked toward a master's degree in social science, through an independent study program provided by University College.

At the same time, he was helping to prosecute Lawrence Russell Brewer and John William King for their roles in the slaying of Byrd. "They wanted to form a white supremacist group in Jasper, they thought they could do something to stir people to choose sides, and they didn't understand that everybody's on the same side," Stevens said.

In a symbolic way, he said, the outcome of the Byrd case spoke to the nature of Texas. Stevens grew up near San Jacinto, where rebels won the deciding battle over Mexico in the Texas war for independence. To him, that battlefield evokes courage and honor, a statewide image that he felt was placed at risk when the Byrd case went to trial.

"The whole courthouse was surrounded by (media) trucks," he said. "The press came in looking for this east Texas, backwoods bigotry, and they found something completely different. ... The rule of law prevailed. Good prevailed over evil. Along the way, the people of Jasper and other (good) people felt more assured that their fellow men felt like they do, that we're all in this together."

As for Friday's commencement, Stevens said he faces a formidable challenge. "I have tried to recall who spoke at ceremonies I've attended and I couldn't," Stevens said. "High school graduation? Undergraduate? Law school? I know (those speakers) did the very best they could, but it went in one ear and out the other."

Certainly, Stevens will speak Friday about James Byrd. Certainly, he will reflect upon the loss of the space shuttle Columbia whose burning parts fell to earth in Texas. Stevens ended up prosecuting a sheriff's deputy accused of trying to steal some debris for souvenirs.

It's equally likely that Stevens will ask his audience to reflect on the heroes of his youth, the Texas rebels who gave their lives for independence. "They performed great sacrifice," he said, "in the hopes of something better."

That's the one thought, he figures, on which the whole place might agree.

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