On paper anyway, the case against the death penalty is a no-brainer. It's often unfairly applied. It fails to deter serious crime. It's usually more expensive...

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On paper anyway, the case against the death penalty is a no-brainer.

It’s often unfairly applied. It fails to deter serious crime. It’s usually more expensive to execute killers than lock them up for life. Setting all that aside, the case against capital punishment is strong solely on account of how often we screw it up. Just since 2000, 39 death-row inmates in 16 states have been exonerated and freed when it became clear they were innocent.

But then there are days like Monday. A day when even a death-penalty abolitionist like me is given pause.

It turns out the body of 12-year-old Zina Linnik, of Tacoma, was found — and her murder all but solved — thanks to the death penalty.

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That’s what Pierce County prosecutors said Monday. They say they thought Zina might have been alive. So they made prime suspect Terapon Adhahn what was literally a life-or-death deal: Tell us where Zina is and we promise not to send you to death row (at least in connection with her case). Uncooperative to that point, Adhahn agreed.

Negotiating with an alleged sex predator isn’t going to win prosecutors any popularity contests. But hope for a miracle trumped society’s interest in going for the ultimate punishment, said Pierce County Prosecutor Gerald Horne.

The gambit apparently got Horne the DNA evidence he needed. It also gave the suffering Linniks a chance to bury Zina “with dignity. And now we know that she rests in peace,” said her uncle, Anatoly Kalchik.

What would have happened if we had no death penalty?

It’s hard to say. But the late King County prosecutor, Norm Maleng, also used the death penalty as a poker chip. After declaring “we will not plea bargain with the death penalty,” Maleng did exactly that, with the Green River killer. He was blasted for sparing the life of the worst serial murderer in U.S. history.

That decision, in 2003, cast a pall over the idea of putting anyone to death. If it’s not good enough for Gary L. Ridgway, whom is it good for?

But had Maleng not made his dicey deal with the devil, it’s possible dozens of families might still be in the dark today about what happened to their daughters.

Jeff Ellis, a Seattle defense attorney and president of the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, says even if it’s true the death penalty makes a good bargaining chip in some cases, it doesn’t change the underlying bankruptcy of the system.

He’s got a point. Washington’s last execution was in 2001. Since then, courts have overturned 10 state death sentences (although one has since been reinstated).

The last time we killed a convict here who didn’t volunteer to be executed — who was fighting his fate in the courts — was back in 1994.

Something’s got to give. Either we get rid of the death penalty or make fundamental changes so it’s stronger, fairer and not such an extraordinary drain on public money.

I favor the former. But it’s not an open-and-shut case.

The death penalty can do some good. It’s now worked twice when it wasn’t applied at all.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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