By Mark Roe and Dave McEachran
Whether or not we keep the death penalty in Washington state, the issue should be decided by a public vote, not by legislation. Contrary to what opponents are saying, the death penalty has an important and valuable place in Washington and should be retained unless the people say otherwise.
The current legislation and political debate surrounding the death penalty are certainly robust, but unfortunately misguided and misleading. The citizens of this state voted decades ago, overwhelmingly, in favor of having the ultimate punishment available for people guilty of the ultimate crimes. The Legislature should not invalidate that mandate, particularly when some of their main reasons for repealing the death penalty aren’t true. Any decision should be based on morality and truth, neither of which are fueling the current repeal movement. Instead, inaccurate claims about delay and expense are.
The governor, attorney general and other death penalty opponents continue to repeat the common refrains: “it is too expensive,” “it takes too long” and “it isn’t working and doesn’t have value” as their main reasons to repeal this important law. Having dealt with dozens of these horrendous murder cases over careers spanning five decades, we can tell you that those verses are generally untrue. Abolishing the death penalty will cause much greater expenditure and delay, and on dozens more cases than are affected now. It is also somewhat obscene to argue that saving money is a valid reason to have or not have the death penalty. Would even one death penalty opponent change their mind if it could be carried out quicker and cheaper? Of course not. It isn’t the “time and expense” they want to get rid of.
It’s the death penalty, period. They think it’s wrong, no matter how much it costs or how long it takes, an argument that we fully understand, and that argument that should be the sole overriding consideration in whatever decision is made. It is a legitimate viewpoint that we respect, and one where reasonable minds can differ.
The very suggestion that money should dictate this decision however, is offensive to us. It’s like someone saying they would be in favor of executing people if we could do it faster or for free. Beyond being merely misguided and distasteful though, the “time and expense” arguments aren’t true. Anyone who believes the death penalty is costly and time consuming, needs to recognize what will immediately happen if we don’t have it on the books.
Killers charged with aggravated murder get multiple dedicated, experienced and professional defense attorneys, appointed at public expense. Every year in this state some of those attorneys approach prosecutors with an offer that their client will plead guilty to life without parole and waive all appeals to avoid the potential of winding up on death row.
That seems to occur when their assessment of the evidence makes them certain that their client is undeniably guilty and has virtually no chance of prevailing at trial. They approach prosecutors because it is the right thing for their client and brings the case to an end. This happens all over the state, every year. The Green River killer’s attorneys did it. How many millions did that save, and how many of his victims did that return to their families?
Efficient, permanent and valuable resolutions will never happen again if the death penalty doesn’t exist.
Just last year a man who murdered young people in Mukilteo pled guilty to all charges and a life sentence only five months after his killing spree. His attorneys recognized his guilt, and the hopelessness of his case. They said so in court. The palpable and tearful relief felt by most of those families was important and valuable. Because the crime of aggravated murder carries only one possible penalty, life without the possibility of parole, if there isn’t even the slight potential of a greater punishment, every aggravated murder that pleads guilty currently, will be litigated and fought like a death penalty case.
The Mukilteo case would still be going on and would drag on for years. Criminal justice costs would skyrocket if there is no greater punishment than life without parole. The death penalty is not nearly as expensive as not having it will be; so we should stop talking about money, and instead consider whether having the death penalty as an option is right or wrong, and whether our citizens still want it as an option.
Opponents also cite the frequent delays caused in death penalty cases, but in reality, a death penalty case needn’t take many years to come to trial. The murderer who killed corrections officer Jayme Biendl was brought to trial about two years after his killing. He is on death row. This killer was already serving a life sentence for murder when he killed Biendl. What punishment would he have if there was no death penalty? None whatsoever. What would that tell every inmate serving life?
If there is no death penalty, every aggravated murder case will be the new battleground. We should all understand that those who oppose death sentences are no fans of life without parole. Life sentences across the state are already being attacked, and those attacks will exponentially increase in both ferocity and frequency, once that becomes the highest possible punishment. Absolutely none of the “time and expense” problems attributed to the death penalty will be solved.
They will only be made worse by eliminating the death penalty; but again, that isn’t why we believe our state should keep it. We should retain the death penalty because some people simply deserve it, and sometimes it is an appropriate punishment. The public should get the chance to either reaffirm their belief in that or reject it. Either way, the decision should be based on truth, not the skillfully manufactured, effective strategies that are persuading legislators now.
The death penalty is ultimately decided by citizen jurors in this state. They are summoned from their busy lives to watch, hear and decide these important cases. The decision about whether our state retains the death penalty should be decided by those same people, the ones who will be asked to impose it.
Right now, it is a political issue, unfortunately centered on false claims and inaccurate assumptions. Death penalty opponents are expending a tremendous amount of time and money, because it is important to them. We think it is important to the public too, and the public should be given the chance to vote on it, just as they did in 1983. The Legislature should not fear the will of the people, and the conscience and will of the people should guide this decision, not the success or failure of current lobbying efforts by opponents.
Mark Roe is the Snohomish County prosecuting attorney. Dave McEachran is the Whatcom County prosecuting attorney.