Whether the death penalty is a deterrent to murder is disputed, but it is indisputable that most murderers seek desperately to avoid it. This gives prosecutors needed leverage.
SEE if you agree with a Bellingham jury:
In 1995, Kristy Lynn Ohnstad, a 14-year-old Bellingham girl, was taken to a secluded area by her mother’s boyfriend, dragged to the back of a van, and told to remove her clothes or be “seriously hurt.” At just over 100 pounds, she had no chance to fight back. Her cries for mercy were ignored. He raped her, choked her, cinched a belt around her neck and drove a metal spike through her ear into her brain. She was still alive, so Clark Richard Elmore covered her head with a plastic bag and beat her skull with a sledgehammer.
Elmore gave a full confession to police and pleaded guilty. When the jury was asked whether they were “convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that there are not sufficient mitigating circumstances to merit leniency,” they were unanimous. Elmore deserved the ultimate punishment for his crimes.
But Gov. Jay Inslee gave this child-murderer what the jury and dozens of judges after 21 years of appeals did not — a reprieve.
Is that justice? Were the jury and a number of courts wrong? Did Elmore instead deserve to live a full life with free health care, recreation and three square meals?
The death penalty is often caricatured as barbaric revenge that an enlightened society should have nothing to do with. But this argument is always made in the abstract. Let us consider another argument.
As Alexander Hamilton observed, “the first duty of society is justice.” So what is the just punishment for this crime? The answer turns on what the crime deserves.
We all believe that each life is precious, unique and irreplaceable. The death penalty is the only penalty that approximates the value of what was taken. It does not reduce the value of life, but affirms the supreme value of innocent life. There will only be one Kristy Lynn Ohnstad.
Critics claim the death penalty has lost favor with the public. But the 2016 elections saw red-state Oklahomans pass a state constitutional amendment aimed at its preservation and blue-state Californians pass a measure (Proposition 66) aimed at speeding up death penalty trials.
Whether the death penalty is a deterrent to murder is disputed, but it is indisputable that most murderers seek desperately to avoid it. This gives prosecutors needed leverage. While we might be dismayed that the Green River killer could avoid the death penalty, we can understand why it was traded away for families to have loved ones’ remains returned and long unanswered questions resolved.
Some oppose the death penalty for fear of executing the innocent. This is not a relevant concern in Elmore’s case, who had pleaded guilty. But the finality of the death penalty inspires urgency for an ultra-thorough re-examination of evidence. Does a 40-year sentence do the same — even when the inmate is likely to die in prison? We have a system of appeals to safeguard against execution of the innocent. We also have the Clemency and Pardons Board to examine evidence and advise governors, and we give governors broad authority to act on those recommendations.
The death penalty is expensive, and may be out of reach for some counties. It can also take far too long. But these are reasons to reform, not to abolish.
The governor claims the reprieve for Clark Richard Elmore was not about the individual case, but about the system. This is wrong. The law prescribes that each case be considered individually with the recommendations of the Clemency and Pardons Board. Instead, Inslee has been going rogue, ignoring the legal process, and undermining justice. The board has not considered Elmore’s case and did not recommend a reprieve.
When Inslee announced his moratorium he cited the costs. Yet Elmore had exhausted his appeals. The expense had already been incurred. The governor complained the death penalty wasn’t applied to the most heinous offenders. This man raped and murdered a child. Inslee complained that death sentences are not swift or certain, but he has further delayed justice that’s already waited 21 years for a man who has never even denied his own guilt. The governor’s actions are not a call to re-examine the death penalty but for legislators to call on the governor to abide by the limitations of his office and to follow the law.