State's first execution in a decade: Asking a question

There is little doubt about the guilt of the eight people currently on death row, but what should we think about a penalty that is irrevocable when a mistake is later discovered?
Crosscut archive image.

A guard tower at the Washington State Penitentiary

There is little doubt about the guilt of the eight people currently on death row, but what should we think about a penalty that is irrevocable when a mistake is later discovered?

Our state is just over two weeks away from the scheduled execution of a man who kidnapped a 22-year-old woman, raped and tortured her for two days, then stabbed and strangled her and hid her body in the trunk of his car. It will be the first execution in a decade; it presents an occasion to reflect once again on the death penalty — a practice that is in decline in all but a few states across the nation.

Hopefully, one can offer some commentary on this topic without having to endure the self-righteous rants of bloggers who only want to denounce the condemned man as an animal and a monster — thoroughly deserving of his fate — and to wish something worse could be imposed on him. The reflections in this column are not about him but about one feature of the prolonged process we call the administration of justice that many are coming to consider as criminal as the acts of many of those who pay its penalty.

The problem is simply this: Far too many people are arrested, tried, convicted, sentenced and in some cases condemned to death for crimes they did not commit. This is not the case in next month's execution; the condemned man has admitted his guilt. But cases in which innocent people are executed come to light with appalling regularity. They demand that we look at the entire process we put people through who are accused of committing crimes and try to insure that the innocent are sorted out from the guilty in a more accurate manner than that we now use.

As one of the more recent examples of this latter problem, the state of Texas has just released a man who has spent the past 27 years in prison for a rape that prosecutors admit he did not commit. Several aspects of his case are of interest. First, he was convicted on the basis of testimony by the victim who identified him in a police lineup.

Eyewitness testimony is increasingly considered by criminal justice specialists as frightfully unreliable; several states have passed laws changing the way in which lineups are conducted in order to reduce the possibility of error. Not surprisingly, Texas is not one of them.

Second, the falsely imprisoned man was exonerated by DNA tests that not only cleared him but identified the actual culprits in the crime. Here again, in the state of Texas — that paragon of rectitude in criminal justice proceedings — 40 people have been exonerated based on DNA evidence in cases in which eyewitness testimony played a crucial role.

Third, the trial and conviction in this case took place in Harris County, Texas. Harris County holds the distinction of being "the death penalty capital of the democratic world." It is responsible for nearly 10 percent of the executions in the United States that have been carried out since 1976. Of the 450 executions in the state of Texas since that year, Harris County has 112 to its credit.

Happily, since 2008, Harris County has had a new district attorney — a former police officer and judge — one of whose first acts on taking office was to reverse the office's historic refusal to admit past mistakes. She has also pressed for a new forensics lab to replace one that has a notorious reputation for botching hundreds of cases.

Harris County is far from the only offender when it comes to capital cases. Since 1973, according to Amnesty International, over 130 people have been released from death rows throughout the country "due to evidence of their wrongful convictions." It leaves us with one simple question to consider: Is it worth risking the life of an innocent person to persist in such an unreliable practice as the death penalty just to get rid of the "animals" and "monsters" in our midst?

The state of Washington has eight people on death row. There is little doubt about the guilt of any of them. But that does not preclude the possibility that at some time in the future, someone may be facing execution in Washington whose guilt is in question or uncertain. Surely, a decent people would wish some other alternative to carrying out a punishment as irretrievable as is the sentence of death.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors