Isn't one life sentence enough?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Aug. 19 2005 6:07 PM

Isn't One Life Sentence Enough?

Why the BTK killer got 10.

Get the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up to get all of Slate's free daily podcasts.

Click image to expand.
No parole
Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

On Friday, the "BTK" serial killer, Dennis Rader, began serving the first of 10 consecutive life sentences for 10 murders he committed around Wichita, Kan. Wouldn't one life sentence have been enough?

Advertisement

Not necessarily. A single life sentence might have given Rader a shot at parole. Kansas is one of only three states (along with Alaska and New Mexico) that always include the chance for parole no matter a crime's severity. In most jurisdictions besides Kansas, judges can dole out life sentences with or without the possibility of parole; a few states, as well as the federal system, assign only "natural life" sentences, i.e., life without the possibility of parole.

In most cases, the judge delivers a sentence for each crime of which the defendant has been found guilty. (Rader pleaded guilty to 10 separate murders.) The judge then decides whether the sentences will be served concurrently or consecutively. Under Kansas law, the standard life sentence is "15 to life," meaning the offender gets his first parole hearing after 15 years. No matter if he faced 10 (or even 100) concurrent sentences, that hearing would still come after 15 years.

No such privilege exists with consecutive sentencing. The judge in Rader's case put 10 life terms end-to-end in order to ensure that Rader would never get parole. In addition, he used his discretion to make the 10th life sentence—for the slow strangulation of Dolores Davis—especially severe. Because the crime was committed in "an especially heinous, atrocious or cruel manner," the minimum duration of that life sentence is 40 years. All told, Rader will have to wait 175 years before he's eligible for parole—nine life sentences with parole after 15 years, and one with parole after 40 years.

One term of 40-to-life still might have kept Rader behind bars for good—he's already in his 60s. So, why bother with the other nine? In cases where the accumulation of life sentences has no practical effect—for example, in states where life sentences don't include the possibility for parole—courts assign multiple life terms for a few reasons. First, in a case with multiple victims, each family might find solace in knowing the criminal received a specific punishment for each crime. Second, the prosecutor might want multiple sentences on the books in case some were overturned on appeal. Third, the court could use back-to-back sentences to emphasize the crime's severity to the governor or the board of pardons.

Explainer thanks Steven Chanenson of Villanova University and Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.