Blue Byline

A cop's perspective of the news and South Sound matters

Balancing ethics and the death penalty

Post by Brian O'Neill on Jan. 29, 2012 at 5:28 pm with 17 Comments »
November 19, 2013 7:58 pm

This is the third in a three part series on balancing civil liberties and public safety

In 2010 Cal Coburn Brown died at the hands of an executioner. More to the point, Brown was executed by the people of Washington State. Us.

Hangman’s noose/ AP photo

Whether we agree with the use of capital punishment or not, there is no denying that the mere mention of the term is unsettling. Images such as the firing squad, the gallows and the electric chair are stark reminders of the moral implications of taking a human life. Though capital punishment is intrinsic to our society, the ethical struggle over its use makes it one of the most divisive legal topics in our nation’s history.

The criminal justice system has, at varying times, both embraced and reviled capital punishment. Blame it on the Judeo-Christian influence on our criminal laws, which can be annoyingly contradictory. How else could we define the difference in the passage, “whoever kills a man must be put to death” (Leviticus 24:21), with the contrasting commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” But rather than delve into theological discussion, let’s just say that many of us are of two minds on the death penalty.

On one hand, it has a righteous appeal as the only fitting punishment for the most egregious crimes. On the other, it is arguably hypocritical to use the underlying crime itself as punishment for the act.

Our legal system also struggles with the issue. Since the first executions in 1849, Washington State has twice abolished capital punishment (first in 1913 and again in 1975). In each instance, once the constitutional issues were reviewed and repaired, the state went back to executing inmates.

Prosecutors and lawmakers have both fought to preserve our state’s legal right to execute convicts for capital crimes, but there are certainly valid reasons against the practice. For example, capital punishment as a deterrence to crime is a quaint notion that has been repeatedly disproven. In a single example, serial killer Ted Bundy left our state’s relatively execution-free safety zone (only 5 people have been executed in Washington since 1976) to continue his killing spree in Florida, a state which took only eleven relatively short years to put Bundy in the electric chair.

Capital punishment cases also cost significantly more money – $700,000 more to be exact, according to a Washington State Bar statistic (cited in the 6/25 News Tribune article on this topic). Much of that expenditure is due to the decades-long appeals process, another legal drawback. Add to that expense the special housing for death row inmates, and it is apparent that  the costs of capital punishment might outweight any benefit.

Yet according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 62% of us still support capital punishment. That type of majority guarantees that elected officials, mindful of their own careers, are sure to continue supporting it.

County prosecutors, on the other hand, must weigh their own budgetary constraints against the need for justice. The vast expense of charging capital punishment cases, not to mention the moral implications of seeking the death of another, are measured against two unrelated. yet important, factors.

The first is the duty to seek redress exceptional crimes, those murder cases that truly shock the senses, like the crimes of Ted Bundy or those of the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway.

The second factor is leverage. As pointed out in the TNT article, just the threat of execution has given prosecutors crucial leverage for negotiating plea agreements as well as obtaining information (this leverage was applied on Ridgway to extract information on the burial location of his victims).

Much like the topics of DNA testing or leniency in criminal proceedings (as discussed in the first two articles in this series), capital punishment as a legal option should be debated from the standpoint of balance. We should continually be weighing the value of an individual’s freedom, and we should take into account that those rights (like Ridgway’s or Bundy’s) diminish with acts of violence. We have a vibrant and rigorous judicial process and an appeals process that allows for new evidence following a conviction.

Balance is the key to living in a society that is both free and willing to protect itself. It is the reason the scales of justice are such a powerful symbol. To maintain their symmetry, our courts must be allowed to use all useful tools.

Even one as dire as capital punishment.

Leave a comment Comments → 17
  1. Chippert says:

    If the death penalty were truly a deterrent you can bet I would be in full support of it, but it’s not. To be a deterrent, it must be a punishment that is swift and sure. Eleven or more years of life AFTER conviction, a life that costs society millions of tax dollars for housing and appeals, erases and possible deterrent that could be there. There is no possible argument that the death penalty is a deterrent or that it removes all chance of the killer re-offending. That chance is removed with a sentence of life without possibility of parole.

    It’s time for society to realize that we have removed the deterrence factor and have painted ourselves into an extremely expensive corner with capital punishment. Get rid of capital punishment or somehow reform the law so that this sentence is quickly carried out while still providing for the protection of innocent persons who were wrongfully convicted.

  2. Two points.
    First, change the word “kill” with “murder” and suddenly that commandment makes more sense.
    Second, how about changing the whole death penalty system to make it better instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water?

  3. I think that life in prison is a better sentence than trying to make the death penalty stick at great cost in money and time not to mention the trauma to the families of going through trial then endless appeals. I also agree it might be an effective bargaining chip for prosecutors to be able to charge someone with the death penalty if only it worked and was not a more or less empty threat. Personally life in prison would be more threating to me and to many rationale citizens. I feel in most cases saying you are going to ask for the death penalty is a hollow expensive threat .

    I also think we delude ourselves by thinking the death penalty as currently enforced is much of a deterence to people who don’t seem to value others lifes and might not care if they live or die either. In some ways it may be far worse punishment to keep someone in jail forever.

  4. toastmaster says:

    For disclosure’s sake, I self-identify as agnostic. My biggest agrument against the death penalty is that I have no way of knowing if death is actually a punishment. I appreciate the the “fear of dying” may be punishment in itself. But the vengeful side of me (as opposed to the community safety side) would much rather someone spend life in prison without the possibility of parole because I know thats unpleasant and I just have no real way of knowing what happens after one dies.

  5. serendipity says:

    I am confused. Was Bundy found guilty, imprisoned, released in WA and then continued his rampage? I thought he was given the death penalty because he commited the crime in another juridiction or state where the death penalty was allowed or where he was finally caught.

  6. serendipity says:

    “Initially charged in Utah in 1975 and convicted of aggravated kidnapping and attempted criminal assault, Bundy became linked to a progressively longer list of unsolved homicides in multiple states. Facing murder charges in Colorado, he engineered two dramatic escapes and committed multiple additional assaults, resulting in at least three murders, before his ultimate recapture in Florida in 1978. He received three death sentences in two separate trials for the three known Florida homicides.”

    Get your facts straight, sir. All it took was one hit on Wikipedia. “Initially charged in Utah.” Don’t you use this newspaper for your political agenda. In fact, this newspaper needs to take this entire story down now!!!!! It’s libel!

  7. Brian O'Neill says:

    Serendipity- Your outrage is all over the place. I recommend a deep breath and try again, while trying to answer the following questions: 1) Is there some part of the word “opinion” that suggests vile intent? 2) Does an opinion on the death penalty, whether for or against, count as a de facto political agenda? 3) If you figure out my political agenda could you please let me know? (I was not aware that I had one, so it would be appreciated); 4) Who or what is the victim of this alleged libel?

    Hopefully you can calm down and use fewer exclamation marks.

  8. finman22 says:

    Actually, Brown was executed in 2010. If you are going to talk about the case, at least get the facts straight, ok?

  9. Brian O'Neill says:

    Thank you for pointing out the error. Corrected.

  10. Soundlife says:

    Wow, Brian, what a difficult topic, so filled with emotion on every side.
    I have been on both sides of the issue repeatedly at different times of my life.
    I support the death penalty only in the most egregious circumstances: Clemmons would have been one case.
    I could not support it where there might possibly be the slightest doubt as to the guilt of the person, as the death of one innocent would compel me to oppose it forever.

  11. BlaineCGarver says:

    With today’s science, if a sure-fire DNA connection cannot be made, then life without would be a moral way to dispose of these cases. I would pull the lever on anyone guilty of murder/rape/child molesting, but I would want to be able to sleep nights, too.

  12. Taking a life is not ethical and taking a life is not ethical.

  13. hansgruber says:

    The death penalty is dead.

    The standard has been set: If Gary Ridgeway killed over 50 women and did not get the death penalty, when is it appropriate to us it?

    Answer: Never

    Thanks King County!

  14. serendipity says:

    “In a single example, serial killer Ted Bundy left our state’s relatively execution-free safety zone (only 5 people have been executed in Washington since 1976) to continue his killing spree in Florida. That state took only eleven relatively short years to put Bundy in the electric chair.”

    Brian, in an earlier post I said I was confused. Your statement with an implication I am outraged and all over the map is not correct. As you can see from this thread, I said I was confused. I really would refrain from telling people they are all over the map and outraged until you meet that person in person. I particularly dislike this kind of statement coming from an armed officer.

    I mean, Brian, let’s face it, you blue liners have been shooting and killing lately because you presume people are “outraged and all over the map.” One was a landlord’s tenant I personally know about who simply came out of his house with a fork in his hand. Oh, those forks. They are mighty lethal when you eat spaghetti. The sauce just drips all over your clean shirt. I respect law enforcement believe it or not, but the shoot first, think second explosion makes me think you ought to meet me, look me in the eye and explain why. Now, you put the safety lock on that gun, okay?

  15. serendipity says:

    Brian, when fatigued, I get confused and stuff. Give me a break. I am not angry. I am hilarious most of the time, can be obnoxious as well, but as a person with a physical disability, I just worry about being shot sometimes by an officer who might think I am drunk. Okay? Now can’t we all just get along?

  16. Brian O'Neill says:


    One of the reasons I agreed to write this column was the opportunity to provide a little inside track to police work. I understand it can be confusing, and I do my best to provide background to help understand the critical incidents and jumbled legal issues that we face. My challenge to readers, such as yourself, is to set aside some of your preconceived notions, i.e. “”you blue liners have been shooting and killing lately because you presume people are ‘outraged and all over the map.'” There can be no level of understanding if one were to presume that cops, at least here in the U.S., are crazed killers.

    Here’s another kernel of truth I have picked up over the years. No matter what you know about somebody, whether it’s a family member or a fork-wielding tenant, you can not presume to know how a situation involving that person went down unless you were an objective viewer. I can’t tell you how many times I have been told ten versions of a story by ten different people (none of whom where present), despite the fact that I was present to witness the event.

    And of course we can all get along. Just go easy on the exclamation points.

  17. Really? Let’s keep it Biblical. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. No doubt the penalty for murder should be death, but it isn’t. it’s prison. Prison, the place to get fed, work out, get medical attention, sharpen your vocational skills, educate yourself, make new friends. Being in prison is not punishment to some people, therefore there is no reason to take the consequences of their actions into account. Sans the fights and rape, prison is a better life than what they had on the outside. Bring back the spectacle of public executions. In the days of Caesar, you got to play with a nice lion when you made the decision to do something wrong. Consequence. Cut and dried

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