When even criminal prosecutors called on the state Legislature to do something about the death penalty, it seemed the broken policy might finally get fixed. Never mind: This is the state Legislature we’re talking about.
When the folks who prosecute crime came together last fall to ask the state to finally do something about the death penalty, it wasn’t an idle policy recommendation. It was a full-on cry for help.
The association of all 39 county prosecutors called on the state to hold a referendum this year to ask: Do we want the death penalty anymore?
How state lawmakers responded was incredibly lame and typical, which I’ll get to in a minute.
But first: What made the prosecutors’ move unusual was that they weren’t motivated by the typical pro and con arguments about the death penalty’s morality, effectiveness or cost. It’s that they are in a bit of a crisis due to King County’s “Big Three” death-penalty cases of the past few years — none of which ended in a death-penalty conviction.
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Last week, Michele Anderson was found guilty of murdering six people in Carnation, including two young children. But King County had been forced to drop the death penalty as a possible punishment after juries for her accomplice in the Carnation killings, as well as for the killer of a Seattle police officer, both threw out death as an option.
All three cases now will end with the same punishment: life in prison without possibility of release.
The problem is: If executing a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old, or a police officer, doesn’t warrant death, does anything?
Further, if juries in King County effectively have given the death penalty to the death penalty, then how can it be fairly pursued anywhere in the state? Life-or-death justice can’t come down to a matter of ZIP code.
Prosecutors are by definition law-and-order types, so it was unusual for them to cast doubts about the ongoing use of ultimate punishment, which many of them support.
The King County cases have to be reckoned with, prosecutors say. They were “relatively clear-cut” candidates for possible death sentences, according to Tom McBride of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. Yet juries not only decided otherwise but did so quickly.
“We, as prosecutors, kind of get a sense that a lot of people are not favoring the death penalty any longer, or their minds have changed from 40 years ago,” one pro-death-penalty Republican prosecutor, in Franklin County, said last fall in explaining the prosecutors’ call for a vote.
This feeling is acute here. Perhaps the King County cases just drew unusually liberal juries. But King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg has implied that the ground may have shifted beneath his feet.
“Prosecutors want to know that when we embark on the long and difficult process of capital punishment … that we are doing so with the support and approval of the people we represent,” he said when calling for a public vote.
Largely due to complications related to the death penalty, the Carnation cases lasted for eight years, the Christopher Monfort case for six. The three together may end up costing taxpayers $20 million, or more.
With the end of the King County odyssey, there are no pending capital cases “where us taking this position potentially complicates a case,” said McBride, of the prosecutors’ association.
So given all this — the problem, the urgency, the cry for help from career pros in the trenches — guess what your state Legislature did?
If you answered “probably nothing,” you’re a student of politics in this state.
The legislative session is due to end Thursday with no bill, no debate, nothing.
The prosecutors were blocked by pro-death-penalty legislators who worry the public might repeal the law, according to McBride. But also by anti-death-penalty legislators who fret the public would vote to keep the law.
In other words: a bunch of people afraid of their own shadows. (That’s my description, not his.)
“We had hoped this could be where we came together, but a public vote was not seen as a sure thing by advocates on both sides,” McBride says.
The death penalty isn’t dead yet, but it’s terminally sick. Everyone seems to know that, except the ones who could do something about it.