Back in my teen years a friend brought over a VHS tape with the invitingly lurid title, “Faces of Death.” The video was a compilation of footage depicting the various and inhuman ways we humans kill one another. Being young and curious, we watched it.
Though images from that video still haunt me, the scene that cost me the most sleep was an execution. I can still picture the electric chair and the way the man’s limbs flex as the jolts from ol’ Sparky hit him. Drool spills from his mouth, every muscle spasms and blood seeps out beneath the sleeping mask that covers his eyes.
While our state’s method of execution no longer involves this form of torture, there is no doubt that the end result is the same. That fact is relevant given Governor Jay Inslee’s recent announcement that he has decided to halt state executions during his tenure in office (TNT 2/13).
If we are to open this can of worms, let’s first agree on one thing: All of the players in this momentous debate, from the attorneys on both sides, the legislators, the governor, and, finally, the voting public, approach this topic with an eye towards justice. In other words, despite our disparate ethics and priorities, we all (should!) want to do what’s right.
In fact, the only bad guys in the death penalty debate are the bad guys sitting on death row. Of course, that’s assuming new DNA evidence does not clear them of any wrongdoing in the future.
You know, this really is a difficult topic.
But the current debate is not about whether one agrees with the death penalty or not. By law, that is a matter for the people to decide, either through a vote or legislation. The immediate issue raised by the Governor’s decree is whether or not he has the right to make such a sweeping decision.
For the record, I believe he does not.
The reason is simple. There is a process by which an individual arrives at death row. First, there is evidence of a crime so heinous that a prosecutor is mandated by the will of the electorate to seek that harshest of penalties. Second, there is a trial that must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the accused is responsible for the crime. After a jury renders a guilty verdict and subsequent sentence, there is an appeals process so lengthy that it seems more likely an inmate will die of natural causes than lethal injection.
When a death penalty matter finally comes before the governor, it has threaded an impossibly narrow legal needle. Thus, the governor’s authority to grant a reprieve is meant to be used only in special cases, such as legitimate questions of guilt or a plea for mercy by the victim’s family. It was never meant for current death row inmates, sociopathic killers like Robert Yates, who admitted to killing 15 women, or Cecil Davis, convicted in the rape, torture and murder of Yoshiko Couch.
Despite what is undoubtedly a decision based on the governor’s own ethics, the use of his office to effectively halt executions is a snub to the hard working staff of county prosecutors (who, after all, represent the victims as well as the people of this state) and to the victims’ families who may have already waited decades for justice.
Our criminal justice system is adaptable. Just as it has set aside the inhuman practice of electrocuting a man to death, it can make adapt to a public which no longer supports the death penalty. Instead of stretching the letter of the law to suit his own personal code, Governor Inslee understand this. And he should let the people decide.