September 24, 1978
Miss Becker is Dead; Her Murderer Lives
By Myriam Miedzian Malinovich
I had no idea that Miss Becker was dead. When one of my students doesn't show up at class I don't think to myself, "Perhaps she's dead." With most students I don't notice. But Miss Becker had never missed a class. Every Wednesday evening since the beginning of the semester she had sat in the same chair in the front row, to my left, her eyes were intense and she would lean forward a bit as if not to miss a word. I did not know then that Miss Becker's interest in my lectures stemmed from anything more than intellectual curiosity.
The course, entitled "Ethics and Human Nature," focused on the implications of various theories of aggression for such issues as capital punishment, rights of the criminally insane, treatment of prisoners, Earlier that fall day as the train taking me to work had pulled into Grand Central Station, I had noticed a newspaper headline: “Ward's Island Escapee Sought in Slaying of a Psychologist." I would often bring an appropriate newspaper clipping to class to illustrate an issue we were discussing. Since Ward's Island is the site of a psychiatric hospital, this piece seemed perfect for that evening's class; we had just wound up a discussion on the ethics of brain surgery for the criminally insane and were going on to the issue of capital punishment. "I must read it before class and underline relevant passages," I told myself as I folded the paper.
It wasn't until I sat down in the train on my way home and opened the paper that I realized I had forgotten about the article. I now read: "A 26-year-old man who was sent to Matteawan State Hospital for the criminally insane at Fishkill Correctional Facility after he allegedly stabbed a girlfriend to death three years ago is being sought in the murder of Judith Becker, a 26-yearold staff psychologist at Fishkill Correctional Facility. The suspect, Ricardo S. Caputo. . . had walked away from the Kirby Psychiatric Hospital, a minimum security state institution on Ward's Island last Friday," Nassau County police had charged Caputo with murder of a 20-year-old Flower Hill woman in August, 1971.
The name of the Second woman Caputo was said to have killed sounded familiar, but I was more than halfway through the article before I dared to open my briefcase and look through my student cards. I found it quickly: "Judith Becker, Yonkers, Occupation: Psychologist." I forced myself to read on: "The body was found by her parents. . . a stocking knotted around her throat and her head battered.
A great story it would have made for that evening's class indeed, if only it hadn't been about Miss Becker who happened to be absent that evening and would continue to be absent because the stocking happened to have been knotted around her throat.
Almost four years have passed since Miss Becker's death, but I still think of her frequently. I think of her whenever I read about the death penalty, whenever I discuss it with students or friends. Because of Miss Becker, I have, so to speak, lost my innocence on this topic. For while I sympathize with those who cringe at the thought of a firing squad shooting a person or a volted chair electrocuting him, I cannot help but cringe at the thought of all the murders committed by recidivists. When I think about the death penalty now, the choice no longer appears to me as a choice between taking or not taking a human life but as a choice between lives. Will it be the Miss Beckers or will it be their murderers?
"Ricardo Caputo is still at large," I was informed recently by a Yonkers detective. "He was last spotted out in California." "Is he a suspect in any recent cases?" I asked. "No, but, that doesn't tell you much." Somewhere in California (or wherever else Caputo might have been these past four years) there may well be other Miss Beckers. . .
If I oppose the death penalty even in cases where the risk of recidivism is high, then I must be willing to shoulder some or the moral responsibility for the deaths of thousands of murder victims as well as the suffering of their husbands, wives, children, parents. ("The body was found by her parents. . . a stocking knotted around her throat and her head battered, . . ")
But what about life imprisonment? Quite simply I do not believe that our society would be willing to pay the cost of life imprisonment for murderers many of whom are in their teens or 20s. At present rates, keeping one murderer imprisoned for 40 years would cost the taxpayer more than $400,000. Sooner or later (if they had not already managed to escape) they would be released, and' then I am back to Miss Becker.
I have the feeling that Miss Becker herself was probably against the death penalty. She struck me as just the kind of sensitive, concerned person who is often repelled at the thought of the electric chair. She probably had a youthful optimism about the ability of psychotherapy to change people-people like Ricardo Caputo. Of course I shall never know for sure since she was not in class the evening we discussed the death penalty.
Myriam Miedzian Malinovich, who has taught philosophy at several colleges, is vice president of a private educational and research institute in New York.