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Washington's 'death penalty': justice or revenge? Legislature tackles divisive issue; conclusion elusive

Is Washington State's death penalty for capital crimes justice or revenge?

HB 1504, heard before the Judiciary Committee March 6, would eliminate the death penalty in this state and replace it with lifetime incarceration. The bill will not likely move forward this session as the last day to hear bills in their chamber of origin is March 13.

Sponsor of the legislation, Rep. Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle), said during public testimony Wednesday on the measure that he hoped his bill would spark necessary dialogue on this often divisive issue.

"I do not seek to argue," he said. "But I ask for the public conversation to be real, to be genuine and reflective."

All 17 persons registering to testify endorsed the bill, citing the high costs of capital punishment cases, past wrongful convictions and the believed failure of the death penalty to deter violent crimes.

Rep. Maureen Walsh (R-Walla Walla), the only Republican co-sponsoring the draft legislation, said that in addition to the costs and lack of evidence that suggests the death penalty is a deterrent, she supports the measure because execution lets convicted murderers off too easy.

"I'd rather they sit in jail the rest of their lives, think about what they've done, live in that hell for the rest of their lives," she said. "It's just way too easy to kill them and be done with it."

According to a letter written by former Gov. Dan Evans, the primary reason victims' families support the death penalty is out of a desire for revenge, a sentiment to which Walsh agrees.

"If the death penalty is no deterrent, is enormously costly and is riddled with errors, all that is left is revenge," wrote Evans.

However, Rep. Steve O'Ban (R-University Place) argued that prosecutors seek the death penalty not out of a yearning for revenge but due to an innate desire for justice.

"This notion that there's something evil or wrong or barbaric or some ancient desire for revenge, I think, diminishes them and diminishes what is really at stake when someone is seeking justice on behalf of their loved one who can no longer speak for themselves," said O'Ban.

Several family members of murder victims and religion leaders testified in support of HB 1504, claiming the "eye for an eye" mentality places more focus on the murderer and detracts from the real tragedy and the loss of innocent victims.

'Perpetuates a climate of violence'

John Rosenberg, pastor at The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Olympia and representing Faith Action Network, said that continued use of the death penalty "perpetuates a climate of violence."

The taking of one life to compensate for the loss of another corrupts morality, Rosenberg asserted.

Committee members also voiced concerns about the high costs of these cases compared to non-capital trials.

The initial cost of a capital case is not what inflates the price alone. It is the lengthy appeals process. For example, the 1982 State v. Campbell case cost taxpayers and the state more than $2.3 million as Campbell filed three federal appeals from 1982 to 1991 during his stay-of-execution granted by the federal Ninth Circuit Court. However, the total cost has not yet been calculated as the previous figure does not take into account jail personnel, court and law enforcement salaries, costs accrued by the Attorney General's office and Campbell's attorney fees. Walsh said the case cost upward of $4 million altogether.

Costs of incarceration play little to no factor in the difference in increased costs. Regardless of the crime convicted, the average daily cost of incarceration, according to the Department of Corrections, is $90 and a combination of the initial trial, conviction and appeals process for capital cases can take about 20 years.

Rep. Jay Rodne (R-North Bend) said specifically that the costly price tags of these cases are due to precedents established by rulings of the courts based off of arguments made by a politically motivated criminal defense bar.

"What (the criminal defense bar) has done is deliberately increased the costs to counties to prosecute death penalty cases and then come to the Legislature and say 'look, the costs of these cases are so much that we just ought to abolish the death penalty,'" he said.

"The larger political agenda," he added, "is consistent with the left's view that criminal justice should be always to expand criminals' rights at the expense of law and order and at the expense of victims' rights."

The constitutional right to appeal one's death penalty conviction in Washington is one cost driver for these types of cases. Mark Larranaga of the Safe and Just Alternatives campaign to end capital punishment also cited an extended jury selection process, additional investigation into a defendant's past and that many cases serve indigent perpetrators as other potential costs.

But Larranaga charged that comments such as Rodne's are uneducated as many of the costs associated with capital punishment cases are inherent due to precedent and constitutional requirements and cannot be avoided.

On average, capital cases cost half a million dollars more at the trial level compared to non-capital cases, according to a 2006 report from the Washington State Bar Association. Other costs associated with the appellate process and personal restraint petitions also increase costs as the case is further considered.

"We're throwing millions and millions of dollars away that should be earmarked for more important things," said Larranaga.

One of the eight death penalty cases in Washington is still pending, even though the defendant was convicted 18 years ago.

"You've proved my point," Rodne said in response to Larranaga's run-down of the cases' cost barriers."These are sympathetic jurists who have interpreted the constitution as to what's required in the capital case, undoubtedly based on arguments made by the defense bar."

"It's incredulous to suggest that there is not a larger political agenda of the defense bar on this issue," he added.

The only way to sidestep these burdensome costs is to eliminate the death penalty, challenged Larranaga.

Currently 17 states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty with Maryland potentially on its way to become the eighteenth. On Wednesday, the Maryland Senate voted 27 to 20 to repeal the death penalty. The measure now awaits a vote from the House of Delegates.

Final committee action has not yet been scheduled for the Washington bill this session. A companion bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Adam Kline (D-Seattle), but did not gain traction this session.

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