Washington justice-system leaders are debating the merits of the death penalty, given its public costs. Guest columnist Karil S. Klingbeil, the sister of a woman murdered 30 years ago, discusses the traumatic costs to victim's loved ones of the legal machinations when the death penalty is in play.

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A RECENT Seattle Times story educated us about the soaring financial costs of the death penalty (“Death penalty dilemma: Is soaring cost worth it?” page one, Aug, 15). I would like to address the other soaring cost, the emotional and psychological impact on family, friends and the community, which may be even greater than the financial costs.

Sept. 17 marks the 30th anniversary of my sister Candy Hemmig’s murder. She had just celebrated her 33rd birthday at our family home in Olympia the previous Sunday. Candy and her co-worker, Twila Capron were gunned down in an Olympia bank by Mitchell Rupe, a man later dubbed “too fat to be hanged.”

Candy left a husband and three children, ages 7, 13 and 16. Twila, too, had a husband and two young children. In an instant, there were two widowers and five children left motherless, not to mention the loss to mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents and friends. Murder, like death, wracks the entire family including the community.

I have had 30 years to grieve and think through this horrible crime and major insult to our family. My sister Gail and I were enraged yet felt helpless, dependent on the criminal-justice system to deliver justice. Initially we desperately wanted the death penalty, which seemed to be the “worst punishment” that a murderer could receive. My emotion arose out of the terrible pain this man caused my entire family.

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After Candy’s service, it was all about Mitchell Rupe. It remained so through three trials. I attended all them and listened to the heinous accounts over and over. At the end of each trial, I was left with the same empty feeling. Time passes and begins to heal the wounds and emptiness, but there is no such thing as closure.

Rupe received the death penalty after the first two trials. The third jury had one holdout for life, so Rupe received life in prison without the possibility of parole. Over 20 years, he had been found guilty by 36 members of three juries and given the death penalty by 35 jurors. We were disappointed but not surprised. Rupe died in prison in 2006.

After years of reflection, my opinion about the death penalty has fully evolved. I now oppose the death penalty in favor of life in prison without parole — still a substantial penalty — for murderers like Rupe.

I have spent my professional career working to prevent interpersonal violence and protect its victims. I oppose all forms of abuse. I am opposed to wars. I realize that opposing the death penalty is in line with my philosophy about other issues of nonviolence I have supported my entire life.

I have come to believe that no one has the right to take another person’s life for whatever reason. To kill someone for killing someone makes little sense. It speaks of anger, frustration, revenge, retaliation and a fallible law. It answers violence with violence.

All studies I have read make it clear that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. Murderers don’t pause at the critical moment they are killing and think, “Gee, I wonder if I’ll get the death penalty?”

But I have explored many other issues beyond deterrence including questions of morality, constitutionality, retribution and revenge, irrevocable mistakes, costs, race, income levels, attorney quality and finally issues of physicians at executions.

Victims’ families, like our family, relive the horror of their loved one’s murder with every court proceeding. Our system cannot seek this ultimate punishment without a great deal of procedure to avoid and correct errors, and still errors are made. The more hearings and trials there are, the more emotional trauma there is for the surviving family members.

The death penalty should be abolished. We should join the many countries that have long ago banned the death penalty. Capital punishment remains a barbaric remnant of uncivilized society. It does constitute a cruel and unusual punishment at odds with our culture and way of life in the United States. We should be putting the money we spend on the death penalty on the front end of crime and apply it toward prevention.

I don’t believe calling for someone’s death makes any of us a better person. I strongly believe working to end violence makes each of us a better person. Opposing the death penalty makes my philosophy of nonviolence a more powerful belief.

The emotional and financial costs are too great for this country to bear.

Karil S. Klingbeil is the former director of social work at Harborview Medical Center and a retired associate professor in the University of Washington’s School of Social Work.