Every several months, Arizona executes a murderer. Even so, it’s news; it gets reported in the newspapers, radio and television.
There was something different about the crime committed by the man who died by lethal injection in the state prison at Florence on Wednesday than any other of its kind.
The murder he committed was heinous; so are, sadly, others. He devastated a family; again, regrettably, so do other killers. It was the murder of a 13-year-old girl, which makes the crime even more disgusting — but once again, far too many children’s lives are taken in this way.
When these executions near, the formula is mostly the same for how the story unfolds: We learn how long the condemned inmate has been on death row. We get a summary of the crime itself. We hear family members’ varied views on whether his being put to death means closure.
On the day of the execution we are told about whether the killer showed any remorse, communicated anything through the glass separating him from a state-organized audience of family members of both victim and inmate, state officials and journalists.
Each of these cases, in its own way, is a description of loss. The loss of life for the one killed and therefore, as punishment, for the one who killed. How loved ones can never fully lift the burden they carry. How people still remember, and so fondly, the one taken from them.
So what was different about the losses perpetrated by Donald Edward Beaty, 56, who was pronounced dead Wednesday evening after toxic chemicals were injected into him?
Beaty didn’t merely kill Christy. He killed a way of life for us all in the Valley, a life of more freedom, of more security, a life we felt lucky to live compared to residents of older, larger cities. Christy Ann Fornoff’s death in May 1984 was a turning point in local lifestyles unmatched by any other single event.
As The Associated Press reported, Beaty kidnapped, raped and killed the girl — who was collecting for her newspaper route in his Tempe apartment complex — and threw her behind a trash bin after joining the search for her when she was reported missing. He even attended her funeral, according to the AP, before being arrested two weeks later once police tracked down the evidence.
And at the news of this, Valley parents’ minds changed, and changed big.
It was the beginning of the end for children delivering newspapers and collecting subscription money for them. Within a few years, adult carriers had taken over, and subscribers started getting billed and returned their remittances entirely by mail. And the image of a kid delivering a newspaper became something you could only see at a Norman Rockwell exhibition.
Marked numbers of parents started driving their children to school and channeling their kids’ high energy levels into supervised activities. The sight of unattended children playing outdoors became less frequent in more neighborhoods. And the sight of a kid riding a bicycle up to the convenience store for candy or a soda became more of the stuff of Rockwell, less and less the stuff of young life in the East Valley.
Beaty, a man who pretended to care about the whereabouts of the blond-haired girl he sexually assaulted and murdered, became the living embodiment of Stranger Danger.
You can cite all the statistics you want about how kids face far greater dangers today from all kinds of things than from being abducted by a stranger, still in 2011 a rare occurrence by comparison to, say, being abducted, even assaulted or killed, by a noncustodial parent. It doesn’t matter. An era of basic kid liberty is over. Sorry, son, you live in the big city.
Today, to learn of the death of a child by any unexpected means still has that gut-tightening effect it always did. It’s news because it doesn’t happen very often, but far too many parents, being the protective people parents are, don’t see it that way. They see it on TV and in the paper because they think it’s behind every tree, every door. It isn’t, but the die is cast.
Donald Edward Beaty denied a girl her life and paid the ultimate penalty for it. But he also took the freedom of thousands of other children who for years now no longer go places they never had to worry about before, who have had to look over their shoulders where they never had to look before, to think about things they never had to think about before.
• Mark J. Scarp (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Tribune contributing columnist who appears on Sundays.