There isn’t much new. The arguments have been repeated again and again. Abolish the death penalty, they say, for moral and practical reasons. Retain the death penalty, they say, as justice for the most vicious crimes.
The gap between pro and con may never been bridged. This is not an issue subject to compromise and concession. With death there is no middle ground. But we can refresh the debate. We can discuss it.
The death penalty and whether Washington should keep it, is bound to be a hardy perennial. Each session bills are introduced to abolish it, and they molder untouched. This year was not much different until Wednesday morning, when House Bill 1504 came up for a public hearing before the House Judiciary Committee. Sponsored by Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle; Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines; and Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, the bill is simple: Eliminate the death penalty, and replace it with a sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole.
All the familiar arguments were heard. Making them were politicians, lawyers, activists, civil libertarians, law enforcement officers, prison administrators, and families of murder victims. Their case was not new, but no less convincing. The death penalty has no place here. It serves no purpose. It is inconsistent, rare, expensive and unjust.
The bill sponsors issued a statement in summation a month ago: “We believe the death penalty is immoral, unfairly implemented, and appeals to society’s most violent instincts rather than love and compassion. … As we weep in pain for victims of horrific, unimaginable crimes, we also hope and pray that one day our state will join a community of states and nations to eliminate this unwise policy.”
Consider the fundamental ethics. The death penalty would be just if imposed inerrantly. The frequency of DNA-based exoneration across the country puts an end to the notion that it is, or ever was.
To be just, the death penalty must be imposed consistently. Like crimes should receive like penalties. That has never been true. The death penalty is far more likely to be imposed in populous counties rich in financial resources, and unlikely in the out-of-the-way places where county budgets are overwhelmed by the cost of criminal justice and the expense of a single capital case can be crushing. Commit murder somewhere near Interstate 5 and you are much more likely to face the death penalty than if you kill near Highway 97. And the bargain that gave a life sentenced to Green River Killer Gary Ridgway, whose after-work recreation took 49 lives, puts a permanent end to the concept of consistent punishment.
Just punishments are consistent and swiftly imposed. There is nothing swift in the death penalty. The requirements of the law, imposed to protect the innocent, ensure painstaking slowness. The last person executed in Washington was Cal Coburn Brown in 2010. He had raped and murdered a young woman 19 years prior. That wait is the rule, not the exception. There is no deterrence, no public safety added. Nothing is saved — the death penalty costs far more in the courts and prisons than a life sentence.
All that is left for justification is what in the hearing Rep. Jay Rodne, R-North Bend, called “the equally valid element of retributive justice.” For the victims and their families, there should be no shame in seeking that.
To be repulsed by crime, to have compassion for the victims and sorrow for the suffering of their loved ones, does not make the death penalty just. The decades between crime and punishment blunt retributive effects. Inconsistency means equal horrors do not face equal penalty. For the death penalty, there is nothing left to say.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.