Desperate Hours in Florida

In the 1955 crime drama “The Desperate Hours,” a businessman and his family are taken hostage by a gang of escaped convicts. A struggle of wills and of wits ensues, with the businessman (Fredric March) and the lead convict (Humphrey Bogart, in the last of his great gangster roles) each striving to secure his side’s survival.

At one point early on, after the convict has made one of a series of gruesome threats against the hostage family, the businessman fixes the convict in his eye and says this: “I never understood before how a mind like yours works, but I do now. I know exactly how you feel, because I’ve got the same thing in me. I want to kill you. If anything goes wrong here, if any harm comes to any one of us, I’ll do it. I’ll kill you, so help me God. You understand that?”

The convict nods grimly and replies, “I get you. We understand each other all the way.” Later, he turns to the man’s wife. “Lady, you didn’t know what a tough old bird you married, did you?” he asks, and she, bursting with pride at her husband’s ferocity, answers, “No. No, I didn’t.”

In the end, the businessman gets the drop on the convict, but rather than pull the trigger himself, he leaves that to the minions of the law. With them waiting outside with their Tommy Guns, he tells the home invader, “Get out. Get out of my house.”

That film, along with the novel and Broadway play on which it was based, was inspired by an actual 1952 event in which the criminals weren’t nearly as brazen and the hostages’ travail wasn’t nearly as traumatic. It ended with the family safe and sound and, after a police pursuit, two crooks dead.

That’s quite unlike the real-life home invasion that devastated a Connecticut family in 2007. America’s thugs had upped their game by then, and her will to confront and destroy those thugs had meanwhile withered away. A mother and two daughters, one only 11-years-old, were raped, doused with gasoline and murdered. The father (who unfortunately had no firearm with which to defend his family) survived with severe head injuries. The two perpetrators also survived; and though sentenced to death, their executions will never happen because of Connecticut’s subsequent abolition of capital punishment.

“The Desperate Hours” hails from a better time. Bloody as it is, the film wasn’t controversial, not a right-wing, spit-into-the-wind bit of “law and order” agitprop, like “Death Wish” and “Dirty Harry” were in the crime-ridden 1970s. Its director, William Wyler, is perhaps the greatest of them all, responsible for such cinematic treasures as “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Roman Holiday,” “Friendly Persuasion” and “Ben-Hur.” If you’ve never seen any of Wyler’s stuff, get it. As the saying goes, learn it, live it, love it.

Spare the Killer?
But first, business. Let’s contrast the message Wyler’s hostage-hero gave the convict with the message we’ve just heard from the precincts of Parkland, Florida.

I don’t mean the schoolchildren’s March for Our Lives, which is being flogged through the media world by the usual suspects of the Left. Others more qualified than I am are giving that business the attention it deserves. I myself have written about the issues it raises here and here. I’m talking about an editorial that appeared in the Florida Sun-Sentinel a month after the massacre.

The Case for Life for [the Parkland killer],” the editorial reads. (It’s the policy of American Greatness not to publish the names of these mass-shooters.)  Never mind that he killed 17 and wounded 15 more. A great deal of harm has come to quite a lot of us because of him, but what does that matter? It would be easier, the paper argues, on everyone—the community, the taxpayers, even the victims’ families—to let the killer live.

His lawyer, public defender Howard Finkelstein, has offered to have him plead guilty and take life without parole if the death penalty is taken off the table. “The families would get their day in court at the sentencing hearing,” the editorial promises. “They’d get to tell him what he’s done to them and what they think of him.” Then the killer would “live out his life” in a maximum security prison.

But, the editorial warns, if the prosecution insists on a capital trial, “the defense would start hiring experts, taking depositions and detailing the multi-system failure of government to respond to the red flags about the killer being a danger to himself and others. . . . It likely would take three years to get to trial, the first step in a journey that would cost many millions of dollars.” The prosecution’s initial request for trial preparation is $5 million. Finkelstein has requested “a couple of million dollars.” That’s public money on both sides, all of which would go to waste if even a single juror votes against death in the “penalty phase” of the trial. In Florida, one holdout is all it would take to save the killer’s life.

And even if death is the verdict, look for the meter to keep running as years of appellate court proceedings stretch into decades, with the families suffering the whole time. “This case will not be put to bed until someone who’s not born yet graduates from Stoneman Douglas High School,” Finkelstein says. “What I’ve seen in 40 years, when families do walk this path, they become hollow bodies, hollow eyes, shuffling in and out of court, linked to the very person who destroyed their lives. When they walk this path, it has not been my experience that closure is at the end of it.”

That’s what the families of the victims have facing them. As for the killer, well, he’s already getting fan mail as he sits in Broward County jail. The mail includes letters from teenage girls. “He’s famous,” Finkelstein says. “They want to be connected to him. They’re star-struck. I’m ready to call the parents and say, ‘You need to know what your daughters are doing.’”

“There’s an evil in this case, and the longer we keep it alive, the more it grows. The quicker we kill this case, the better for all of us.”

A Matter of Honor
Sun-Sentinel’s editorial concludes:

We encourage the survivors and victims’ families to carefully study the road ahead and decide together what they want. … Is it worth a 20-year journey to execute [the killer]? Families who’ve gone before them have said otherwise. Even when the execution finally happens, some have said it didn’t have the effect they’d hoped. Only the injured and victims’ families know what’s ultimately right for them. And the answer may take some time. But speaking as people who care, we suspect the better course is to send [the killer] to prison for life and throw away the key.

Read the whole thing. In a crazy way, it makes sense. I don’t imagine, however, that anyone will be bursting with pride over the outcome—least of all where the killer’s treatment in prison is concerned. “It will be a miserable experience,” Finkelstein says. “There’s a pecking order in jail society, and those on the lower end of the pecking order get beaten and raped. And killing children is on the low end of the pecking order. This will be very hard time. Some would say that it would be more merciful to kill him.”

Not only is it more merciful, it is more honorable. If a jury spares the Parkland killer’s life, then the state incurs an obligation to protect him against criminal violence behind bars. America’s prisons are notorious hellholes, and one reason that’s so is that they are chock-full of people who should have been hanged. But when we fail to hang murderers and fail to maintain order in prisons, we are doubly derelict in our duty.

The fact is that the view expressed by Finkelstein and the Sun-Sentinel editorialists makes sense only in a crazy world. Their concern for the killer’s victims amounts to crocodile tears. Good liberals all, they and their fellow activists on the bench have created the very system they now put forward—“speaking as people who care”—to explain why we should let this mass murderer live to a ripe old age while his young victims lie cold in the ground.

In a sane world—a world that is within our grasp, if only we would reach out for it—the killer right now would be confessing to a priest at the foot of the gallows, not amusing himself by reading murder groupies’ mash notes.

There is indeed “an evil” in this murderer’s case. But in a sane world, the people who decide that case would say: “The quicker we kill the killer, the better for all of us.”

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About Karl Spence

Karl Spence is a retired journalist living in San Antonio. His work has appeared in National Review, the Chattanooga Free Press, American Thinker and at www.fairamendment.us.