»  National Review Online

February 14th, 2002

  Kill Two Cops, Write a Book


This week, the case for capital punishment has a local habitation and a name. The habitation is "an undisclosed location in Camden, NJ" and the name is Thomas Trantino. Here's the story.

In the pre-dawn hours of August 26th 1963, two officers on the force of Lodi, NJ responded to a report of a disturbance at the Angel Lounge on Route 46 in that town. The officers were Sergeant Peter Voto, aged 40, and Patrolman Gary Tedesco, 22. Tedesco, a probationer, was unarmed, so Sgt. Voto went into the bar alone. When, after a while, he hadn't come out, Tedesco went in himself. Inside the bar were two career crooks, Thomas Trantino and Frank Falco, celebrating a recent crime spree. They had grabbed and disarmed Voto after he entered the bar; now they held Tedesco, too. The two police officers were forced to strip to their underwear, taunted and pistol-whipped, then shot in the head. The murderers then fled. Among the police officers who later arrived at the crime scene was Chief Andrew Voto, who slipped in a pool of his brother's blood.

Falco was killed a few days later in a shoot-out with police. Trantino gave himself up, was tried and sentenced to death. The state Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence in 1965. However, while the inevitable appeals were dragging their weary length through the system, that same court determined that New Jersey's death penalty was unconstitutional, so Trantino's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. That was in 1972. Two years later, Trantino published a book, Lock the Lock, of autobiographical ramblings (for a brief sample, see this). The book's publication naturally caused much distress to the families of the two murdered officers. There is no evidence Trantino lost any sleep over this. He accepted his royalty payments without audible protest.

Being now under a mere life sentence, Trantino was eligible for parole. He duly applied — the first time, in 1979. At the third hearing, in 1982, Trantino got himself a new attorney, a crusading young radical lawyer named Roger Lowenstein. Lowenstein discovered that Trantino, far from being a cynical and manipulative psychopath, was in fact gentle, wise, selfless and intellectual — a sort of reincarnation of Albert Schweitzer. Lowenstein became determined to win release on parole for this living saint, and one year ago he finally succeeded.

Trantino's ninth parole hearing had been denied in June 1999 primarily on five grounds:

[H]is psychological profile, as reflected in the testimony of the Board's chief psychologist, of a borderline personality disorder that made him potentially violent; the lack of a suitable parole plan; a failure to address in psychological counseling the issues that led him to engage in domestic violence; a history of being less than candid with the Board and psychologists about his past; and his plans to write another book.

This denial was appealed all the way up to the state Supreme Court, who on January 18th 2001 issued a ruling. They found that parole had been denied unfairly, and ordered Trantino released for one year to a "half-way house," i.e. a lightly-supervised hostel. After the year — which brings us to the present day — he was to be released altogether, his only further obligation to society being to report to a parole officer once in a while. That final release has now been effected.

The Supreme Court ruling, though lengthy, is worth looking at. It contains, in its appendices, some partial transcripts from the 1999 hearing, exchanges between Trantino and the Parole Board at which Trantino … Well, read them for yourself; suffice it to say they do not lend a whole lot of support to the Albert Schweitzer theory. Trantino's basic position is that he's really, really sorry he did something or other to some guys — though (this, at any rate, is what he says when he remembers to keep his story straight) he can't actually recollect anything that happened owing to his having been drunk and high and possibly in the grip of some psychiatric disturbance at the time — and could he please go home now?

That ruling also shows that the state Supreme Court's ruling was not unreasonable on a strict reading of the law. There's no evidence that anyone in either of the appeals courts was happy about letting this killer loose. The parole board, however, was so un-happy about the prospect they pulled out all the stops they could reach to keep Trantino inside. Did they step over some legal line thereby? The Supreme Court believes they did, and I'm not sure they're wrong. Here you see at work the ruling principle of modern liberal jurisprudence: fiat justitia, ruat coelum — "Let justice be done, and let the heavens fall."  Are we releasing a dangerous psychopath to come and live among honest citizens? Sorry, the law says we have to.

(The law has since been changed. Partly as a result of the Trantino case, since 1997 a cop-killer in New Jersey forfeits all parole rights. Laws cannot be applied retroactively, of course, so Trantino's parole comes under the previous statutes.)

There is a good deal to argue about here. The fiat justitia principle, for example, actually has a great deal to be said in its favor, from a conservative viewpoint: abstract principles of law, inflexibly applied, may indeed offer the best basis for a well-ordered society — so long as the laws are based in reason, good sense and the true invariants of human nature. Other things, too: Does a geriatric in orange fatigues shuffling around a prison yard eventually become pitiable? (Trantino, by the way, is only 63, in bouncing good health, and has plans to work and to write more books. Voto and Tedesco? They're still dead.)

And: Is there any force in the land great enough to stop the apparently irresistible tendency of judges, lead-swinging prison officers' unions and crusading lefty lawyers to spring criminals from jail before they've served their time? And: What the heck is parole all about, anyway? What kind of dumb idea is it? If a criminal is sentenced to 10 years, why on earth should he not serve precisely ten years? (Time off for good behavior? How about time added on for bad behavior?!)

You can argue the death penalty in general terms, too. Is it unfair to blacks? To poor people? Are there cases of innocent people being executed? However, none of those arguments applies to Trantino, who is emphatically un-black, un-poor and un-innocent. There is no doubt at all that he did this appalling crime, and not even his delusional attorney tries to deny it.

There is one thing, however, that you can't argue about. You can't argue about the following: If this piece of offal, Trantino, had been fried good and slow 40 years ago, as he so richly deserved, the state Supreme Court of New Jersey would not have been put to the trouble of issuing a 40,000-word opinion, Roger Lowenstein would have had to find some other psycho to sing "Kumbaya" to, the publishing firm of Random House would have one less piece of unreadable gibberish on its lists (not that that would notice), the taxpayers of New Jersey would have been saved untold millions of dollars, and we would not now be insulted by newspaper pictures showing the sneering face of a murderer who has successfully gamed the system.