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March 7, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Poll: Should Washington state repeal the death penalty?

Wednesday morning’s hearing on HB 1504 in the House Judiciary Committee reignited the question of whether to repeal the death penalty in Washington state.

State Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, says the issue is unlikely to get anywhere this year, but he hopes a public discussion — and “the transformational impact of DNA testing” — will lead to passage in the future. His bill proposes replacing the death penalty with life in prison without parole. Proponents say doing so would save taxpayers tens of millions in court fees. Washington currently has eight inmates on death row and dozens of other capital punishment cases moving through the system.

Watch the fascinating hearing below, which opens with testimony from staff and both Carlyle and Republican state Rep. Maureen Walsh of Walla Walla. Walsh read a statement from former GOP Gov. Dan Evans, who supports repeal because “the chance for error is too great; the cost too high.” (I’ve posted his full remarks after the jump in this post.) The panel also heard from the family members of two murder victims who oppose the death penalty.

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There’s no doubt this is a loaded issue that bring out varying viewpoints on the meaning of justice and punishment. For a sense of this, scroll to about 14:25 in the video to see state Rep. Brad Klippert, a Republican law enforcement official from Kennewick, ask Walsh, “Do you know if  Gov. Evans ever visited a heinous crime scene when someone has been brutally and evilly and with all malice murdered or dismembered or executed? Has he ever visited one of those scenes before he made this consideration?”

With no one at the hearing to speak in opposition to HB 1504, state Rep. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, said he wanted to speak out for those who’ve been victimized by premeditated, aggravated murder.

“This notion that revenge is what  motivates victims’ families to seek the death penalty, I think, is a red herring,” O’Ban said. “What we’re speaking of here is the innate desire for men and women to seek justice. That’s what’s welling up from those who’ve had someone they’ve loved, whose life of promise was before them and was taken from them by a ghastly murder. This notion there’s something evil or wrong, barbaric, or some ancient desire for revenge, I think, diminishes them and diminishes what’s really at stake when someone is seeking justice.”

At 18:30 into the video above, attorney and state Rep. Jay Rodne, R-Snoqualmie, also gets testy and accuses some in the legal profession of raising the cost of capital cases to make them unaffordable for counties.

“Maureen, what about that poor prison guard in Monroe who was in a chapel who had a convict who’d been there for murder, life sentence, who took a power chord and strangled the life out of her? What do you say to her, Maureen?” he asked, referring to the 2011 killing of Jayme Biendl at the Monroe Correctional Complex.

“Unfortunately, I can’t say anything to her right now,” Walsh responded. “In that particular case, I really think the institution is at fault… They left her alone and vulnerable to that attack.”

Walsh also pointed out the fiscal inefficiencies associated with the death penalty. This 1994 Seattle Times news story reported  taxpayers were then on track toward spending $3 million in court fees before convicted killer Charles Campbell was executed. Walsh said Wednesday that figure reached closer to $4 million versus the $50,000 annual cost of housing an inmate. “That would’ve incarcerated him for 80 years-plus,” she said.

After the hearing, the Safe & Just Alternatives coalition gathered an anti-death penalty panel in a nearby conference room. Watch that video or read excerpts from the speakers below:

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Judy Kerr, sister of 2003 Everett murder victim Robert Kerr:

“For me personally, it’s in the closure of cold case units across the state of Washington. King County with 228 unsolved homicides closed it’s closed case unit Dec. 31 of last year. That means there’s no hope at all for justice for those victims’ family members while Washington State spends millions of dollars on an unnecessary death penalty system. It’s been suggested that we can cheapen the cost. We can speed up the process of the death penalty, but that’s offensive to me. It offends me in the sense that constitutional rights are what drive the cost, and I don’t want to be part of any system that ignores anyone‘s constitutional rights. We have alternatives. We have public safety at the heart of those alternatives. And public safety and prevention of crimes is where I’d like taxpayer dollars spent.”

Dick Morgan, former death row captain and director of the Washington Department of Corrections’ Division of Prisons:

“There’s nobody in the room other than myself that knows what it’s like to be assigned to carry out tasks with the death penalty. I can guarantee you it requires some very deep, thoughtful contemplation…

My grief comes with my government not having the restraint, of not having the willingness to stand between retribution, revenge or what have you and the ultimate outcome of killing somebody.”

Norm Stamper, former chief of the Seattle Police Department:

Let’s take a look at spending our time, our money, our energy and our resources on the prevention of those kinds of crimes that have a way of escalating to the ultimate crime.

Darryl Stallworth, former Alameda County district attorney, on how death penalty as punishment is determined by prosecutors or committees based on the “heinous” nature of the crime:

“What it really means, I believe, is that the murder is going to be so offensive that people would consider executing this person. And that within itself sets the table that says that some peoples’ loved ones who’ve been murdered aren’t very special; and that within itself starts a process that’s so arbitrary and so subjective that it makes the death penalty inherently problematic.”

Finally, here’s the full statement from Gov. Dan Evans, courtesy of Rep. Walsh’s office:

When I became governor in 1965 the death penalty was not an issue.  Challenges of redistricting, education, social services and transportation filled the legislative agenda.

Several years later I visited the state penitentiary in Walla Walla  with Warden  Rhay and walked the halls of that grim prison.  On our tour we passed a small courtyard surrounded by bleak prison walls.  A dozen inmates were playing basketball in the yard and I asked the warden why they were isolated.  He replied, “These are the men on death row”.  I suddenly realized that, as Governor, I had the final say over life or death for these men.  I inherently felt that was wrong and began a serious study of the death penalty.

I first had to answer the question “What would my reaction be if one of my children was murdered?”  My first reaction was,“Give me a chance for revenge.” But that would not bring my child back and revenge is a dismal character trait.  As I studied more , I found that the death penalty was no deterrent.  States with the most executions continued to have the highest murder rates. 

Citizens often asked me “What about the cost of keeping these murderers in prison the rest of their lives?”  I found that the cost of a trial and repeated appeals far exceeded the cost of imprisonment for life and delayed justice unconscionably.

Finally, with the development of modern investigative tools and DNA evidence, we are discovering frighteningly numerous cases of mistaken identity and error which have sent too many innocent humans to their death.

Only once as Governor was I faced with the decision of death or stay of execution.  John William Hawkins was sentenced to death and his execution was rapidly approaching.  I issued a one-year stay of execution so that the results of a recent US Supreme Court decision could be applied to his case.  Ultimately the execution was set aside and he served a life term in prison.  I vowed not to allow any executions to take place during my term as governor.  The chance for error was too great and the costs too high.

If the death penalty is no deterrent, is enormously costly, and riddled with errors, all that is left is revenge.  Is that an appropriate goal for a civilized nation?  I think not.  Recent statistics show that only four nations execute more people than the United States.  Those are China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.  That is in stark contrast to the entire continent of Europe, which has banned the death penalty.

I urge this legislature to substitute “life in prison without parole” for the death penalty.  It would place us with those civilized nations and states who have chosen reason over the satisfaction of revenge.


Comments | More in Polls, Video | Topics: crime, death penalty, law


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