What Somali pirates can learn from Walla Walla and Wall Street

Washington's death row inmates and corporate fat cats are employing strategies that could come in handy for seagoing brigands.
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Washington's death row inmates and corporate fat cats are employing strategies that could come in handy for seagoing brigands.

The Wall Street Journall ran a column by Bret Stephens that will appeal to embattled capitalists sitting in their club chairs and wondering what happened to the good old days. The headline read, "Why don't we hang pirates anymore?" and examined that question in all seriousness and with a shade of lament. Stephens seemed to yearn nostalgically for the sensible rough justice of the type the Royal Navy could mete out while building the British empire:

By the 18th century, pirates knew exactly where they stood in relation to the law. A legal dictionary of the day spelled it out: "A piracy attempted on the Ocean, if the Pirates are overcome, the Takers may immediately inflict a Punishment by hanging them up at the Main-yard End; though this is understood where no legal judgment may be obtained."

Two thoughts occur. One is that piracy seems to be one of the few bright spots in the global economy, so would it really be right to over-regulate it with rope? It's a rare sector that's hiring right now and we need jobs.

Second, if it's okay for board room types to ponder the injustice of not being able to string up pirates, is it also permissible to contemplate old-school justice when dealing with Wall Street's own barbarous robber barons? Perhaps we should also hang the pirates who fly in corporate jets?

As the Journal column points out, it is almost impossible to legally kill pirates these days because of two things: too many laws handcuffing law enforcement on the high seas, and too little regulation. On the one side, anarchic Somalia is a haven for pirates. On the other, we're slowed by United Nations and international agreements. In the middle, you also have major screw-ups. It now appears the Indian Navy, credited with bold action in sinking a pirate "mothership," blew up the wrong vessel. Oops.

The end result is the hangman's hands are tied. It's not just pirates who are getting off the hook. Were I a Wall Street Journal writer I might point to Washington state where there's another death penalty debate. Execution here is legal and rare, and each impending execution an occasion for lawyers to challenge the death penalty itself, or at the very least the mode of execution. Judges just issued a stay of execution for double murderer Darold Ray Stenson who was scheduled to be executed at the penitentiary in Walla Walla by lethal injection Dec. 3. One of the claims his defenders are making: Stenson has Type II diabetes, and therefore it is too difficult to find a decent vein in which to stick the needle.

This is a familiar, and sometimes successful, tactic: beat the executioner by claiming a murderer can't be killed because of ill health. Which sort of turns death on its head (skull?) since most of us die because of ill health.

One reason inmates Stenson is facing a syringe and not a noose is because in the mid-1990s, a murderer named Mitchell Rupe ate his way out of the hangman's noose. Rupe weighed over 400 pounds and his lawyer argued that he would likely be decapitated if dangled suddenly from a taught rope. Since hanging was then the only method of execution on the books, Rupe avoided it and spent the rest of his life in prison. Talk about a loop hole.

Washington was still able to hang a few others, notoriously Charles Rodman Campbell, a stone-cold killer creep who refused to choose lethal injection based on "religious" principles, and was therefore hung. Campbell went the hard way: he had to be pepper sprayed and tied to a board before they dropped him through the hole. By contrast, lethal injection seems a gentle way to go, but still, death row inmates can pick their poison. Or claim exemption due to diabetes or obesity. The common cold may be next.

Rupe isn't the only fat man to avoid punishment. In fact, he may have pioneered the way for other chubby inmates. A creeping Rupe strategy appears to be testing other prison limits. In Quebec, Canada a drug trafficking gangster named Michel "Big Mike" Lapointe was released from prison this November because he was judged too fat for prison. When he was arrested, Big Mike was a svelte 375 pounds, but in two years he'd ballooned to 430. Too fat to hang, but also too fat to be enclosed in a cell.

I very much doubt that there are too many obese Somali pirates — that may be a disease they'll encounter if they continue to flourish as they have. But there's a readymade strategy for pirates to ensure they'll never see a noose and a yard arm even as the world's navies ramp up to fight them. The lesson is from Walla Walla and Wall Street: Your best back-up in a pinch is to be too big to fail.

Update: The Washington State Clemency and Pardons Board will hold a hearing at 9am on Dec. 1 to consider a petition for clemency by the Washington State Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty for Darold Stenson. The hearing will be televised live on TVW.  

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.