Execution: State history offers some hope of ending barbarity

Sen. Ed Murray has repeatedly tried to end capital punishment in Washington state. Appeals to moral reasoning have actually worked before here.

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A guard tower at the Washington State Penitentiary

Sen. Ed Murray has repeatedly tried to end capital punishment in Washington state. Appeals to moral reasoning have actually worked before here.

Cal Coburn Brown, who was executed early Friday morning, was a death penalty poster child: Overfed, ugly, unrepentant.

In a statement denying clemency for Brown, Gov. Chris Gregoire said, "The post-conviction review by the courts has been thorough. Since Cal Brown’s conviction, the U. S. Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Washington State Supreme Court have reviewed his case and have found no basis to reverse his conviction or to change the death sentence imposed by the jury."

Gregoire continued:

"The torture, rape and murder of Holly Washa were horrible acts of brutality. My sympathies and prayers are with Holly Washa's family, who has suffered immeasurably from Cal Brown's actions. No one can do anything to take away or lessen their pain. As a mother, my heart goes out to them for their tragic loss. I pray for Holly Washa. I will also pray for Cal Brown."

The only problem with all of this politically and legally sound reasoning is that capital punishment remains a grotesque relic of the Dark Ages. It throws the United States in league with such human rights cretins as Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and China. It's unjust and arbitrary (think of the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway, who pled guilty to 48 sadistic murders in exchange for a life sentence). It's not a deterrent, and it costs Washington State millions.

Professor Hubert Locke, along with the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, have underlined an especially horrific possibility: the likelihood of executing an innocent person (nationwide, 138 death-row inmates have been released since 1973 after being found innocent, according to the Coalition). The reasons for abolishing the death penalty, both moral and practical, are endless.

All the while, extending mercy to the merciless — and Brown acted mercilessly — runs counter to human nature. Imagine evil incarnate. (Brown even has that giveaway madman signature of three names, like John Wilkes Booth or John Wayne Gacy).

President Reagan's former Solicitor General, Charles Fried, presents a surprisingly cogent and persuasive argument against the death penalty in his just-published book (co-written with his son, Gregory), "Because It Is Wrong: Torture, Privacy and Presidential Power in the Age of Terror":

Abstracting from everything about the death penalty except the ending of life makes vivid what the death penalty really is: a live person completely helpless in the hands of his captors is put to death without hope or opportunity of resistance or remonstrance. Much more than killing on the battlefield, it enacts the total subjection and subsequent annihilation of one person by another. All moral equality between executioner and victim is denied. The condemned for that moment exists only to be killed. Worse still, it is not only the executioner who has this total power over the condemned, but society as a whole that has organized itself to kill.

Legislative session after legislative session, state Sen. Ed Murray has, like a latter-day William Wilberforce, introduced a bill to abolish the death penalty. And, year after year, Murray has watched his spirited efforts crumble. It's politically untenable. Citizens support the death penalty.

"Regardless of the hideous crime committed, state-sanctioned murder has never been a deterrent," Murray said in an e-mail. "It's regrettable we have a long way to go in Washington towards abolishing the death penalty."

A winning strategy probably requires that moral sentiment be disguised and recast in political terms. The death penalty translates into millions of dollars for greedy suits, resources that could otherwise go to cops on the street or to locking up career thugs. It's politics, raw and embellished, with an unexpressed moral end. That's because efforts to promulgate morality (think Prohibition) generally crash and burn, and no one likes moralizers.

History can, of course, repeat itself. In 1913, state Rep. Frank P. Goss of Seattle introduced a bill to abolish the death penalty. According to a 2003 HistoryLink essay, Goss said on the state House floor, "I deny the abstract right of a government to take a life. I recognize only one right to kill and that is in self-defense."

It was nearly a century ago, but this time the moralizing took. Gov. Ernest Lister signed the Goss bill into law. Capital punishment was abolished, not to be undone for six years.

Ed Murray and fellow opponents of the death penalty, take heart.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson is the former editorial-page editor of the Everett Herald. Follow him on Twitter @phardinjackson