WHEN I woke that August morning in 1982, the Greater Seattle community I was proud to serve never suspected what the next 20 years would hold. We certainly didn’t expect to end up hunting for a serial killer, but that is what began on the bank of the Green River with the discovery of two decaying bodies of young women who one evil man decided were prey.
Over the next 20 years, the King County Sheriff’s Office created the Green River Task Force, disbanded the task force, and then reopened it when I became sheriff in 1997. Our team collected far too many bodies during that time — all young women full of potential who became ensnared in a sordid way of life through a variety of circumstances. Victims of their situations, they also became victims of the Green River killer.
These memories came rushing back to me because of Gov. Jay Inslee’s recent decision to unilaterally stop enforcing the death penalty while he is in office. He says he wants to start a “conversation” about capital punishment, so let’s start with some facts.
In Washington state, the death penalty is reserved for a select group of people. In legal terms, these criminals have committed murder in the first degree under aggravating circumstances. Simply put, these people are the worst of the worst. Currently there are nine men on Washington’s death row who have committed such atrocities. Even the governor has admitted he believes all nine are guilty of their crimes.
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Gary Ridgway is the monster we arrested as the Green River killer in 2001. He would eventually plead guilty to 49 counts of murder although he has claimed that he raped and murdered 20 to 30 more young women.
There was only one way Ridgway would plead guilty: if the threat of capital punishment, one of law enforcement’s most valuable tools, were taken off the table.
Ridgway is a coward. To him the victims’ lives meant nothing, but his own life was far too precious to him to consider losing, so he sent his lawyers to bargain for his life.
In 2003, we convinced Ridgway not only to plead guilty but to spend six months shedding light on the fate and whereabouts of other young women he killed. We were able to find answers for families who had agonized for years over the whereabouts of their loved ones. I witnessed how those answers could allow families to grieve, say goodbye and begin to rebuild their lives, always remembering their lost loved one.
Every tool in the arsenal of a law-enforcement officer is important — from the sidearms we carry to the law itself. Without these tools, we cannot keep our communities safe or ensure justice is carried out. That is why I believe the death penalty is critical to public safety.
When Gov. Inslee announced his moratorium on capital punishment, he reduced the effectiveness of law enforcement in Washington state. The moratorium’s tangible effects are minimal, considering its infrequent use. Since the voters reinstated capital punishment here in 1975, five men have been put to death. But for every cop and prosecutor who needs to put away a violent murderer, there is one fewer weapon with which to fight for justice. More cases will go to trial and monsters like Ridgway could hold on to their secrets forever or even walk free.
If the governor wants to start a conversation on the death penalty, the people of Washington state must be included. He took an oath to uphold our law, and he should not violate that oath because he disagrees with the law. If he wishes to overturn it, then he should propose legislation and take the case to the voters.
The people of Washington put capital punishment on the books and they should be the ones to take it away if they choose. In the meantime, the governor should be engaging law enforcement and other groups about this issue. If he doesn’t, it will be the people of Washington State who pay.
U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, represents Washington’s 8th Congressional District. As a King County Sheriff’s deputy and homicide detective, he was the lead detective of the Green River Task Force. He served as sheriff from 1997 until 2005.