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.
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.
Since prosecutors and lawmakers have fought so hard to preserve our state’s legal right to execute convicts for capital crimes, it would fair to ask the purpose. There are certainly reasons why we should not. For starters, 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. That state 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 one may have a valid point that we might not be able to afford the costs of capital punishment.
Yet legislators and prosecutors still fight for the right to charge death penalty cases. The politicians viewpoint, at least, is clear. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 62% of us still support capital punishment.
The 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 goals. The first is the duty to address exceptional crimes, those murder cases that truly shock the senses, in a manner separate from “average” homicides. The crimes of Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, obviously fit this description.
The second goal is leverage. As pointed out in the Trib article, the threat of execution has given prosecutors crucial leverage for negotiating plea agreements and for 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.