A welcome new debate about the death penalty

February 12, 2014 

Members of the news media look through a large window into the execution chamber during a tour at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla in 2001.

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The death penalty is as weighty and difficult an issue as a society can deal with — a question that leaves honest and principled people deeply divided.

A state that executes criminals ought to regularly revisit whether its government ought to be in the business of taking human life in the absence of immediate danger, even the lives of the most monstrous murderers. Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday forced a welcome new discussion by granting a blanket reprieve to the nine killers on Washington’s death row.

It was a half measure. A reprieve does not guarantee a condemned man’s life; it temporarily suspends his sentence pending further deliberation.

The next governor could proceed with the execution of the men the state has sentenced to die. Tuesday’s reprieves put the issue squarely in the hands of the citizenry, where it belongs.

Inslee will have to face the voters in 2016, and he’s likely to draw a challenger who will oppose him on this issue. If enough voters favor capital punishment strongly enough, the machinery of death will once again begin grinding.

The News Tribune’s editorial board has grown increasingly uncomfortable with capital punishment in recent years, and we now share Inslee’s feeling that Washington should move beyond it.

Honest opposition to the death penalty must acknowledge that Washington — unlike some states — has applied it rarely, carefully and to killers whose guilt is beyond dispute. The few who do get executed here tend to have committed uncommonly hideous crimes, or else have waived their appeals and more or less volunteered to die.

We should have no illusions about them. The last man to receive lethal injection, in 2010, killed a 21-year-old woman after raping, burning and electrifying her on and off for 36 hours. The man who may be next in line for execution — an immediate beneficiary of Inslee’s reprieve — murdered the wife of a deployed soldier, her 5-year-old and 3-year-old sons, and her sister.

Evil of that magnitude makes its own case for putting the perpetrators to death. Opponents of the death penalty, including us, must look the evil square in the face while saying that execution is not a moral prerogative of the state.

The anti-capital punishment position carries pragmatic problems, including the impossibility of further punishing a murderer who kills a guard or inmate while serving a life sentence. So does the pro-capital punishment position: In a state that rarely uses it, it can’t be applied without wild consistencies. And prosecutions, trials and appeals are notoriously expensive in capital cases.

Ultimately, though, this is a question of principle, not circumstance. The rarity of capital punishment in Washington — the fact that the public doesn’t bay for the blood of common killers — says something good about us. We don’t think it’s a big leap to go from rare to never.

 

 

 

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