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Topic: death penalty
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May 7, 2013 at 6:15 AM
An interview last week on NPR’s Fresh Air with criminologist Adrian Raine raises a fascinating question: do bad brains cause bad behavior?
Raine thinks so, and has the brain imaging research to prove it. Brain scans of psychopaths show their brains are different from normal people, and their amygdala, the emotional governor of the brain, are remarkably smaller.
This research is putting a spotlight on the field of neurocriminology, which Raine writes about his new book, The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime. Sounds like a meaty, provocative read.
The interview reminded me of a New York Times story from 2002 tracing criminal behavior through a family tree, raising the old nature-versus-nurture debate. The story notes that half of the juveniles in custody have a father, mother or close relative who’s served time.
The concept is not new: any veteran police officer can tell you stories of generational crime. But brain imaging research raises interesting questions about how we should approach criminal sentencing. If we know someone has the biological markers of sociopathy, shouldn’t parole officers pay heightened attention?
More importantly, if sociopathy is closely linked to a medical condition – ie, a withered amygdala – is there an opportunity for a medical treatment? If we can treat ADHD, and schizophrenia, and epilepsy, how about a crime-prevention drug? Call it Thug-B-Gone (feel free to suggest a more clever name).
Raine in his interview tries to inoculate himself from the notion of criminal destiny: people make choices. But he also is applies the research to to the death penalty debate (and I’m inclined to agree).
“I’ve got to be careful here. There’s no destiny here. Biology is not destiny, and it’s more than biology, and there’s lots of factors that we’re talking about there, and one factor like prefrontal dysfunction or low heart rate doesn’t make you a criminal offender. But what if all the boxes were checked? What if you had birth complications and you were exposed to toxins and you had a low resting heart rate and you had the gene that raises the odds of violence, et cetera, et cetera, stuff happening early on in life. I mean, you’re not responsible for that. Then how in the name of justice can we really hold that individual as responsible as we do … and punish them as much as we do — including death?”
Here’s the Wall Street Journal video story on Raine.
April 4, 2013 at 6:15 AM
Washington, luckily, has a reputation for a relatively clean, competent criminal justice system. We haven’t had a West Memphis Three case, or had to empty our death row because, as Seattle Times investigative reporter Ken Armstrong once wrote, “justice has been forsaken” by error and incompetence.
But a comprehensive effort by the new National Registry on Exonerations is a stark reminder that mistakes happen here too. By their count, 26 people were exonerated in Washington state between 1989 and 2012. Clark County is among the top 10 counties in the country for exonerations per-capita, including Thomas Kennedy in 2012.
The project by the law schools of Northwestern University the University of Michigan finds a promising trend in a report issued Tuesday. Although the number of exonerations nationwide now stands at a 1,050, law enforcement is cooperating in exonerations at an unprecedented rate. Among the 63 exoneration cases added in 2012, more than half had the help of police or prosecutors.
The database is an incredible resource, but is also limited. It doesn’t include James Baldwin, who moved to Seattle after being wrongfully convicted in Arkansas for the killing of three young boys in West Memphis, because he agreed to a plea deal in order get out after 18 years. A documentary on the case, “West of Memphis,” playing at the Varsity in Seattle, is gripping. He recently testified in Olympia.
It does include two I’ve covered — Dayna Christoph, in Spokane, and Ted Bradford, in Yakima — as well as those caught up in Wenatchee sex ring. Christoph is the prototype: developmentally disabled, badgered into a false confession, abandoned to a lousy defense lawyer.
Re-reading those cases, I’m more convinced than ever that we should pass House Bill 1504 and end the death penalty. Dead men can’t be exonerated, and we can’t afford that risk, no matter how clean our reputation.
March 19, 2013 at 6:47 AM
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.
Jonathan 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.
Bruce 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.
March 7, 2013 at 6:00 AM
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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