By Judy Kerr
When I heard that a Senate committee in Washington’s Legislature voted to end the death penalty recently, I felt a sense of hope mixed with cautious optimism.
I have been an unlikely supporter of an end to capital punishment in Washington for nearly 15 years. My brother, Robert Kerr, was found brutally murdered in Snohomish County in 2003, and his murder remains unsolved to this day. My hope is that the money the state saves by ending the death penalty can be re-directed to work on unsolved violent crimes.
When I first learned of my brother’s death, I expected justice to be swift and certain. His body was found on the side of the road by a Sunday paper delivery truck driver. He had been severely beaten and strangled. His wallet was missing; his credit cards were stolen, his bank accounts emptied.
For the next few years, I was in regular contact with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s detective assigned to the investigation of his murder. Most of that time we simply waited, while the crime lab worked its way through a backlog of evidence. Work on the evidence in Bob’s murder and other pending cases was subject to interminable delays.
I couldn’t understand why the process was taking so long. Bob’s killer was out on the streets, and there seemed to be no justice in sight. When I inquired about the delays, I was told there was not enough funding to support another crime lab, so evidence in many cases was delayed or simply not processed at all, while high profile capital cases took precedent.
Today, I still stay in contact with and have great respect for the detectives in Everett. My family still waits for Bob’s killer to be identified, prosecuted, and sentenced, but I don’t have much hope. Several years ago, I heard that the King County Sherriff’s Office’s would shut down its cold-case squad indefinitely because of a lack of resources. At the time, there were 228 cold cases in that county waiting to be solved. This kind of news brings only sadness to families in my position, and should outrage all citizens.
This is why I have consistently supported ending the death penalty in Washington state. While the state continues to waste millions of dollars each year prosecuting a few high-profile killers, hundreds of cold cases go unsolved, and perpetrators walk the streets.
One recent study by Seattle University found that death penalty cases cost at least $1 million more than murder cases in which life without parole is sought instead. All of that extra money is spent to execute someone who is already safely behind bars. Yet, there is no realistic way to make the death penalty process cheaper due to the risk of wrongful conviction and execution.
In Washington state, there have been at least 47 wrongful convictions for serious crimes, including one man who was wrongfully sentenced to death. This makes it clear that human error will never be eliminated; wrongful execution is not an option at any price. The only way to prevent an execution of an innocent person is to eliminate the death penalty altogether.
My desire for swift justice in Bob’s case evaporated many years ago, but repealing the death penalty and re-directing the resources to Washington’s unsolved rapes and murders may bring justice for many other families that have suffered like mine.
Ending the death penalty can make the criminal justice system more responsive to the needs of victims and survivors of violent crime. I hope the Legislature finally takes this opportunity to end the death penalty once and for all.
Judy Kerr is a retired nurse. She lives in Albany, California.