An American View

A death penalty for two teenage lovers

Fred Bruning December 16 1996
An American View

A death penalty for two teenage lovers

Fred Bruning December 16 1996

A death penalty for two teenage lovers

Fred Bruning

An American View

Tis the season to be jolly, except maybe at the office of the Delaware attorney general where prosecutors have placed on their holiday wish list the execution of two 18-year-old defendants. Grim are the tidings for Brian Peterson Jr. and Amy Grossberg, teenage lovers from New Jersey accused of murdering their newborn son. Melancholy, too, is the news for all Americans because capital punishment—with its wild and capricious nature, its vengeful spirit, its blind disdain for redemption, its openness to political manipulation, its coarse racial arithmetic, its false promise of a quick fix for what ails society—demeans us, every one.

The story of Peterson and Grossberg is a pathetic tale worthy of Nathaniel Hawthorne or Theodore Dreiser.

Kids from the affluent north Jersey suburbs, the sweethearts had been out of high school only a few months when Grossberg, a freshman at the University of Delaware, and Peterson, who had just begun studies at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, found the secret they foolishly had kept all summer could be sustained no longer. Grossberg was pregnant and her water had broken, and now she was on the phone calling Peterson and telling him to quickly drive the three hours to the Delaware campus.

From Grossberg’s dormitory, the teenagers hurried to a motel in Newark, Del., where authorities say Grossberg gave birth to a sixpound, two-ounce boy. How different the world must suddenly have seemed to Peterson and Grossberg. How impossibly complicated and confusing. A little while ago, they were a couple of American kids finishing high school and dreaming of all their lovely tomorrows. Now they were in Room 220 of the Comfort Inn trying to decide what to do with an unwanted infant boy—their son. Who knows what went through their minds—why they did not take any of the sensible options available to anyone in their predicament? Who knows why, facing the most important choice of their young lives, Peterson and Grossberg chose so badly?

Court papers allege that, after assisting in the delivery of the baby boy, Peterson wrapped the infant in plastic and deposited the baby in a dumpster near the motel. Peterson later told authorities the child was alive when left in the trash bin. But investigators say the child did not die from suffocation or exposure. An autopsy showed that the baby perished due to “blunt force trauma and shaking”—that someone had fractured the infant’s skull. The baby born in Room 220 was a homicide, and a nasty one at that.

Almost immediately, prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty and—though a harsh and hasty judgment—there is little

It would be hard to explain why they were spared a punishment so routinely imposed on other, nonwhite Americans

wonder why authorities acted so decisively. Involved in the case were a couple of wealthy white kids, after all, and it would be difficult to explain why these defendants were being spared a punishment so routinely imposed on other Americans—the ones whose skin is the wrong color and whose families do not own houses in elite New Jersey suburbs. More than half the 3,100 prisoners on death row in the United States are nonwhite. Poverty is endemic among the doomed. Any prosecutor in Delaware who gave Peterson and Grossberg a break would invite questions about evenhandedness. The state, though tiny, has the highest per capita execution rate in the nation.

What a nightmare. Grossberg was arrested after a brief stay in the hospital. Peterson remained a fugitive for a few days. His attor-

_ ney said the boy panicked at the thought of a

death sentence—lethal injection in this case—and that at one point his mother considered hustling him out of the country. When finally he gave himself up, Peterson was met by the requisite mob of reporters, photographers and curiosity-seekers. “Baby killer,” shouted a spectator. “Fry him,” said another. One person called out: “Brian, you are in my prayers.”

In an instant, the arc of emotions attending the death penalty was described. Americans either thrill at this most awful application of state authority or shrink from its sullen face. If there is a middle position, rarely is it discussed. The Delaware episode attests to our confusion on the question and the duplicity of the capital punishment system—a renegade machine that screeches through the soul of American society. In its path this time are the sort of kids who ordinarily stand clear of trouble. Lawmakers favoring capital punishment were baffled. “I have to say this is not a situation that myself or any other legislator could imagine,” said Republican state representative Terry Spence.

Exactly what does that failure of imagination suggest? Who did legislators have in mind when they passed a 1994 death statute specific to the killers of children? “I was just saying to my wife,” Spence remarked, “ ‘How can you apply the law to a couple like that?’ ” A couple like what? If the death penalty is appropriate in some cases, Spence and his colleagues must have the courage to defend it in all—not such an easy task.

And the killers of the dear, battered child found tossed into a waste receptacle like a sack of trash—what becomes of them? They must be dealt with, surely, but not by death, not by cruelty, not by a punishment so primitive that it mocks justice, whenever applied. Insiders hint the couple—now awaiting grand jury appearances—may adopt an insanity defence. Meanwhile, there is speculation that prosecutors are reviewing their options. In this season of goodwill, restraint may yet prevail over righteous zeal. Sure as any Christmas star, mercy sheds its grace on all.

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.