Should Washington's death penalty be dropped?

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The grounds of the state penitentiary at Walla Walla, where death row prisoners are housed.

Is it time to kill the death penalty in Washington?

That question has been brought to the fore in the last year. Gov. Jay Inslee has let it be known that no prisoner will be executed on his watch. The state Legislature has held hearings on a proposal to end capital punishment in the state, a bipartisan bill backed by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, City Council President Tim Burgess and a unanimous council.

The state currently has nine prisoners on death row, with one potential death penalty case before a King County jury this week. Since 1904, Washington has executed 78 people, an average of fewer than one per year. The last was in 2010. Texas, by contrast, has executed nearly that many in the last four years alone. We have the death penalty, but we’re no Texas.

There are legitimate questions about how fairly capital punishment is being applied. A study by two University of Washington researchers found that African-Americans in the state were four and a half times more likely to be convicted in aggravated murder cases and that “prosecutors were significantly more likely to file a death notice when the case was adjudicated in a county with a relatively large black population.” Of the nine inmates currently awaiting death in Walla Walla, four are black and five are white, according to the Department of Corrections. As of 2013, Washington was 81 percent white and 4 percent African-American.

In addition to bias, there are other arguments against such punishment: It’s not much of a deterrent; it’s state-sanctioned cruelty. Some believe it’s a misapplication of authority. In a House hearing earlier this year, Republican state Rep. Chad Magendanz of Issaquah said: “Is it appropriate for government to take a life? I don’t trust the government with that power.”

Some circumstances, however, are largely the result of the opposition itself. Prosecuting death penalty cases has become pricey; it’s estimated that it adds nearly $1 million or more to the cost of a trial in Washington. But these costs have been driven up by capital punishment opponents’ challenges to sentences from every possible angle, causing expense and long delays.

Death penalty opponents are hoping the issue will go the way of same-sex marriage or marijuana legalization; that resistance will be worn down, and public opinion will shift. The citizens of Washington have favored capital punishment in the past, but with incremental pushing, the “death house” just might fall over.

Racial and social bias in the system are legitimate problems, and will continue to be even if alternative forms of punishment, such as sentences of life without parole, replace death row. Racism runs throughout society, and therefore, throughout jury pools. Is there ever the perfect attorney, witness, jury or judge? Justice is the goal, but no human system is perfect.

We can improve the system, and we have. From its frontier days, Washington has had a history of rough justice, like many Western states. There have been lynchings, although unlike some other parts of the country, the targets here were rarely African-Americans. We’ve lynched alleged murderers, horse thieves, Native Americans, Chinese workers and labor organizers. Some of these shameful acts have been committed by our “best” citizens: Nisqually Chief Leschi was legally lynched by territorial leaders in 1858, an event that a historical court of inquiry judged a “gross injustice” in 2004. A mob operating out of the local Elks Club hung Industrial Workers of the World activist Wesley Everest as part of the 1919 Centralia Massacre. Seattle citizens, under the eyes of leading citizen Henry Yesler, lynched three white prisoners in Pioneer Square in 1882. They were strung up on Yesler’s maple trees. The pioneer was quoted in Harper’s Weekly as saying, “That was the first fruit them trees ever bore, but it was the finest.”

We have worked toward a more civilized system: better courts, prison reform, less corrupt police departments, fewer vigilantes. As a society, we are far from done. My own feelings are of sympathy for opponents while remaining convinced that in some cases, a death sentence is warranted. That opinion was partly shaped by my days as a college newspaper editor in Olympia. In 1974, a 19-year-old Evergreen State College student, Donna Gail Manson, went missing. We wrote about the case, and I participated in a search party that swept the greenbelt around campus looking for her body. Our student newspaper also began to cover an apparent epidemic of missing coeds in the Puget Sound area. We later learned this was the work of serial killer Ted Bundy, and while he wasn’t caught and executed in Washington, I was sure happy that Florida did the job.

Justice is not always applied equally — anyone with a passing familiarity with a criminal proceeding knows this. It can depend on your color or class, or the skill and price tag of your lawyer. It can depend on circumstance. Bundy died, but Gary Ridgway lives on at taxpayer expense. That's unfair on its face, but without the threat of death, Ridgway might never have admitted to scores of murders.

Fixing inequities has to be a priority. But justice can still be done in individual cases. The inmates currently on death row are running through their appeals, getting the benefit of a patient society. But that doesn’t mean there are people on death row who don’t deserve to be there.

This column, in slightly different form, originally appeared in the May edition of Seattle Magazine.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.