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March 19, 2013 at 6:47 AM

Civil Disagreement: Should Washington state repeal the death penalty?

Civil Disagreement is an occasional online feature in which two Seattle Times editorial board members take different sides. Here Bruce Ramsey and Jonathan Martin disagree on whether to end the death penalty in Washington.

martin,jonathan-webJonathan Martin: Yes, abolish the death penalty.

Bruce, I’m surprised you dismiss the cost-savings argument because you usually see government policies through a dispassionate, cost-benefit lens. It’s clear the death penalty is massively expensive, with no clear value as a deterrent for homicides. Don’t take my word for it: That’s the conclusion, after three decades of research, by the National Research Council of the National Academies.

If deterrence is unproven, the argument for the death penalty turns toward retribution. You cite the worst of the worst. But I think of the other heinous murder cases I’ve covered where the death penalty wasn’t sought, such as Brad Jackson, convicted of suffocating his lovely nine year-old daughter. He buried her, then a month later, dug her up and reburied her.

The fact is, we don’t reserve the death penalty for the worst of the worst. It is applied arbitrarily, based on where a crime is committed, how well it was investigated, who is elected prosecutor, how a jury is chosen, and the mental health of a defendant. And in some states, it has depended on their race.

Washington State Supreme Court Justice Charles Johnson made that point in a 2006 dissent in the Dayva Cross death penalty appeal, citing Gary Ridgeway and two convicted of the Wah Mee massacre: “Where the death penalty is not imposed on Gary Ridgway, Ben Ng, and Kwan Fai Mak, who represent the worst mass murders in Washington’s history, on what basis do we determine on whom it is imposed? No rational explanation exists to explain why some individuals escape the penalty of death and others do not.”

Financial arguments against the death penalty aren’t the best argument, but they are persuasive. We change criminal sentencing laws all the time based on their cost, especially in the recession. Trying a death penalty case costs $800,000 more than a life-without-parole case, according to a 2006 study the Washington State Bar Association.

That estimate is probably a bit low; in King County, one case is nearing $6 million, with no trial date in sight. A single death penalty case can bankrupt a small county.

Those costs must be high because vigorous defense is a hedge against wrongful executions. We’re not Texas, or Arkansas, but we’ve had our share of wrongful convictions. When it comes to killing someone at the state Penitentiary in Walla Walla, what chance of innocence, no matter how small, are you comfortable with, Bruce?

Take the death penalty off the table, and those same convicted murders face an effective death penalty: they will die in jail. Eighteen states, most recently Maryland, already have done so. A life sentence is an appropriately crushing sentence. It spares victims’ families years of appeals. It saves the prisons system the cost of maintaining a special death row, and the apparatus of executions.  It is sure justice.

In a civil, just society, justice must be applied with clear-eyed equity, especially when we’re talking about executions. If not, we’re not Norway. We’re Iran.

ramsey,bruce-webBruce Ramsey: No, don’t abolish the death penalty.

Jonathan, I don’t buy two of the most common arguments for abolishing the death penalty. I don’t think the death penalty saves money, and if it did it would be a disgusting reason for supporting it. I also don’t rely on the deterrence argument. I doubt if the death penalty deters any crime, at least the death penalty as I would have it used.

My argument for the death penalty is that there are a few criminals so heinous that justice demands it. Mainly these are people that not only kill, but kill multiple people in a crime that rivets the attention of everyone. I’m thinking of someone like Timothy McVeigh, who set the bomb in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, and injured more than 680 people, in 1995. He did it because he wanted to make a political statement about the behavior of the federal government. McVeigh was the first federal execution in 38 years.

I think he deserved it. I think the fellow in Norway, Anders Behring Breivik, deserved the death penalty for killing 77 people in two separate attacks in 2011. Breivik didn’t get the death penalty because Norway has done away with it.  Too bad. Norway had the death penalty in the past, and used it against rather effectively against Vidkun Quisling.

Here in Washington I remember Charles Rodman Campbell. He was convicted of rape, and threatened to murder the witness against him—which he later did, practically beheading her, and killing her 8-year-old daughter and the woman next door. Murdering a witness is a crime against justice itself. In prison Campbell terrorized the other prisoners. In the past 30 years or so, he is the only killer Washington has executed against his will. There was no question of his guilt. At the time we had a liberal governor, Mike Lowry, who didn’t believe in the death penalty. Lowry could have commuted Campbell’s sentence—and didn’t. Not for this guy.

I would have supported the death penalty against Gary Leon Ridgway, the Green River Killer. He killed at least 71 women. The King County prosecutor made a deal with him: they would let him live if he revealed where the women’s remains were. The argument for doing it was that finding the remains put the families at ease. I suppose it did, but I didn’t think much of the deal.

I support the death penalty that has been ordered, but not yet carried out, for Robert Lee Yates Jr., the Spokane serial killer. The Washington Supreme Court just came out with a ruling in the Yates case, dismissing his appeals on a host of legal issues.)

In my idea of the death penalty, a state the size of Washington would use it maybe once every 5 to 10 years. Or 20 years. I’m not for being like Texas, which executed 248 people in the last decade. Execute that many, and you run the risk of making mistakes. You also make executions ordinary, and they should be extraordinary. Rare. Reserved for the worst. But when you have the worst, you need to have the authority. Let’s not be Norway.

Comments | More in Civil Disagreement, Pro/con | Topics: death penalty

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