The death penalty is not effective and is applied unfairly. It’s time for Washington state to abolish it.
GOV. Jay Inslee’s decision to halt the execution of Clark Elmore, while unpopular, is right.
By way of disclaimer, I am a law-and-order guy. I grew up in a law-enforcement family and am a former criminal prosecutor for King County. But the death penalty is not just.
The death penalty is a complicated topic. Personally, my moral beliefs conflict with what I know justice requires.
Allow me to explain. I believe there are crimes for which a convicted person has forfeited his or her right to life. Clark Elmore, who murdered a 14-year-old girl in Bellingham in 1995, is a good example. However, justice requires that we move to abolish the death penalty.
I have spent considerable time studying the death penalty. As a deputy prosecutor for the state of Washington I have prosecuted some of society’s worst criminals, including those who perpetrated sex crimes against children. Also, at the Center for Justice in Chicago, I have defended individuals charged with the death penalty.
In short, I have been in the trenches and seen the administration and effects of the death penalty on both sides of the aisle. There are three reasons the death penalty does not work.
First, the penalty has not and cannot be administered fairly. Despite court and legislative efforts, it is applied arbitrarily. Death is often sought in counties that have the resources to sustain a capital prosecution. If you commit your crime in one county versus another, you’re more likely or less likely to get charged with death regardless of the crime. Two percent of all counties in the United States account for the majority of capital prosecutions and executions.
Racial bias is inherent in the administration of the death penalty and minorities are charged more often than whites even when the same crime is committed. In the prosecution of a capital case, it is the only crime for which we talk about punishment during jury selection and before the trial even begins. We simply cannot have a permanent punishment with an imperfect system of justice. Even the most perfect criminal prosecution is filled with human error.
Second, the death penalty is not effective. It is not and has never been a deterrent. This overwhelming consensus has been well documented, including in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. There is no legitimate research that substantiates the view that the death penalty saves lives, because it does not.
Finally, the administration of the death penalty costs significantly more than convicting and sentencing someone to life in prison without the possibility of release. On average, it costs $3 million to prosecute the death penalty. In the last three death-penalty prosecutions in King County, it cost taxpayers more than $15 million in defense costs, not including the cost of prosecution.
We are outliers, alone among Western civilized nations that still administer the death penalty.
In death penalty cases we sensationalize the defendant rather than remember the victim. The Elmore case is a perfect example. Here we are as a society still talking about Clark Elmore, remembering his name more than 20 years after he committed the heinous crime against a young girl rather than sending him away to be forgotten forever. Her name was Kristy Lynn Ohnstad.
As a policymaker, the governor is not afforded the luxury of making decisions on an individual basis. The executive must make and administer policies that can be applied across society as evenly and as consistently as possible. The death penalty cannot be administered fairly, and it does not work. Let’s end the debate and abolish it.