Special Reports

In theory and in fairness, Gary Ridgway case could end death penalty for entire country

Legal experts say the plea bargain with the Green River Killer raises a thorny question: If the state of Washington is not going to execute someone who has confessed to murdering 48 people, how can it ever again put anyone to death?

It is a question of simple fairness: Under state law, the Washington state Supreme Court is required to review every death sentence and consider whether the sentence "is excessive or disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases."

"People are concerned that if they don't seek the death penalty in the Ridgway case, it would not be permissible to seek it in any case," said University of Washington criminal law professor John Junker. "How do you find anybody who's done worse than he's done?"

That logic might have national implications.

In theory at least, someone on death row for a murder in Texas could appeal on the grounds it's unfair to execute him while Gary Ridgway was spared.

"This is a glaring example that may even interest the Supreme Court," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center. "There will be appeals, and there may well be a review about the whole country's use of the death penalty."