Last October, our state Supreme Court ruled that the historical record of cases in which juries had imposed the death penalty reflected an arbitrariness and racial bias that violated Washington’s constitution. This was the fourth time in the past half-century our high court found the state’s death penalty law too flawed to trust. The good governance reasons for Olympia lawmakers to finally strike from our books a law that consistently produces unfair results are straightforward. When it comes to putting people to death, as state employees and taxpayers, none of us can feel comfortable that our system is getting it right. Our record falls terribly short.
That said, my reasons for wanting to see state legislators repeal the death penalty once and for all are more personal. I have worked as a corrections professional for 35 years, 11 as the secretary and deputy secretary of Washington’s Department of Corrections. I’ve been in the execution chamber as a prisoner was put to death when I was the deputy and I have given the order to proceed with the execution when I was the secretary. I’ve discussed these experiences with the four other secretaries who either gave the order or were in the execution chamber during the five executions carried out in Washington in modern times — Chase Riveland, Joe Lehman, Dick Morgan, and Dan Pacholke.
Each of us speaks from firsthand experience, from giving the order to proceed with the execution, to being present in the death chamber when the noose was placed around a prisoner’s neck or when he was strapped to the table for lethal injection. We have witnessed the process and supervised the staff tasked with carrying it out. All of us agree it is past time to put an end to this practice, which has led to the execution of 78 men in Washington since 1904. The most recent execution was in 2010.
Dozens of people are involved in carrying out an execution: line officers and their sergeants and lieutenants; administrative staff who have to arrange and confirm the details; clergy, cooks, and counsel. All of them feel the impact of playing a role in taking another human’s life, and so, too, do their families. I’ve witnessed visibly shaken staff as they carried out their assigned duties. I have participated in post execution debriefings and seen the outpouring of emotion from those state employees involved in taking a human life. As much as my fellow former secretaries and I tried to take care of them before and after each execution, we know it comes with a personal cost that will never be erased.
I have been asked whether we should retain the death penalty for cases in which our law enforcement and corrections officers are intentionally targeted and killed, as happened to Seattle Police Officer Tim Brenton and Monroe Corrections Officer Jayme Biendl. To be clear, no one suggests the lives of those who enter these lines of work have greater value than others’ and that their taking therefore merits harsher punishment. Rather, the question has been whether keeping the death penalty for these cases would deter acts of violence against those whose job responsibilities inherently pose greater risk of harm at the hands of others.
After more than three decades of working with people incarcerated for every kind of crime, who’ve exhibited a wide range of mental and emotional makeups, I have never encountered an individual for whom the possibility of being sentenced to death figured into the decision of whether or not to carry out an act of violence. Simply put, people who commit violence don’t think about the consequences. Threatening execution has not kept, and will not keep, our law enforcement and corrections officers safe. Instead, we must constantly evaluate the risks they face, improve the environments in which they work, and equip them with the best and most current training and tools available.
This session, in February, the state Senate passed SB 5339 — a bill to remove the death penalty from state statutes. The bill is now advancing in the House.
Ultimately, taking another human life is simply wrong, for people who murder and for state employees. I urge the Washington legislature to repeal the death penalty and finally bring an end to executions.