Let voters decide if we should have a death penalty in Washington state.
IT looks like the death penalty survived another challenge in Olympia this year, but the vote is getting closer. Gov. Jay Inslee, the current and previous attorneys general, an array of lawmakers, activists and media outlets, including this newspaper’s editorial board, came up a few votes short of getting a bill out of committee that would have eliminated Washington state’s death penalty.
The lawmakers vowed to fight on next year, insisting that it’s all about justice. If it is, then I hope they will answer the following three questions:
• What do we do when an inmate serving a prison sentence of life without parole kills a corrections officer or another inmate?
This is not a hypothetical question. Six years ago Byron Scherf strangled Monroe corrections officer Jayme Biendl in the prison chapel. The jury voted to give Scherf a death sentence. Death penalty opponents would argue that justice is better served by a sentence of life without parole. But Scherf, a violent sex offender in his 50s, already had a life sentence. Why would another life term be a more just penalty than a death sentence?
• Banning the death penalty would deny prosecutors the opportunity to close a case by using the death penalty as a bargaining chip. Why is that a good idea?
Again, this is not a hypothetical question. In the summer of 2007, 12-year-old Zina Linnick was kidnapped outside her Tacoma home. Police zeroed in on a suspect: 42-year-old Terapon Adhahn, an ex-con whose record included rape and incest involving young girls. There was hope, however faint, that Zina might be alive. So with the search continuing, Pierce County Prosecutor Gerry Horne offered Adhahn a deal: take us to Zina, and we’ll take the death penalty option off the table. Adhahn then led authorities to Zina’s body. She had been raped and killed with a blow to the head.
Horne supports the death penalty, but made the deal to get to the bottom of the case promptly. Her uncle, Anatoly Kalchik, said, “Authorities promised to take it off the table and he showed us where (the body) is. Her body was found and we could bury her with dignity and now we know that she rests in peace.”
Prosecutors have used this leverage several times over the years. But if the death penalty were abolished and a little girl like Zina went missing, the options suddenly change. Instead of death or life without parole, the choices would be life without parole or life with a chance of parole. Why is that a better alternative?
• What exactly is wrong with Washington’s death-penalty statute?
It’s tightly written and reserved for the worst kind of offenders, which is why only eight inmates are on death row. There is no doubt about the guilt of any of them, none. Demographically they are overwhelmingly white and of varying ages and income levels. They received the death penalty because their crimes were especially barbaric. Every one of them killed a woman, a child or both, sometimes hideously.
The governor complains that the death penalty is “unevenly applied,” that its expense deters smaller counties from trying death-penalty cases while larger counties can press forward. The obvious solution is to have the state assist smaller counties with the expense of a death-penalty prosecution so the defense can’t simply run up the costs. In a state with a $36 billion budget, it would probably run less than $5 million a biennium. A secondary (and equally obvious) solution is to speed up death-penalty trials and streamline the appeals process.
Earlier this year, the governor said he wants a statewide conversation on our death-penalty law. So does this newspaper. Great idea. Instead of trying to peel a few more votes from the Legislature year after year, let’s involve everybody in the conversation: Put the future of the death penalty on the November ballot, this year or next year when most legislators are also on the ballot. Let’s see how the people of Washington state would answer these three questions.