Execution's toll

A new study suggests the death penalty is killing us.

WASHINGTON CHIEF JUSTICE Richard Guy simply wants to remind everyone it takes time and money to kill a killer.

"My concern," he tells us, "is that by reason of cost and time involved in trial and appeals, the public loses confidence in the judiciary." So he's taking no position on the death penalty, see. Readers of the justice's new study on "the benefits and burdens" of Washington capital punishment cases, however, might be persuaded it's time to reconsider, if not repeal, one of the most expensive and arguably least effective state laws.

Since the ultimate punishment was reinstated in 1981, 25 men have been convicted and sentenced to death in Washington. Only three—multiple murderers Charles Rodman Campbell, Westly Allan Dodd, and Jeremy Sagastegui—have been executed. The latter two hastened their deaths—and lowered costs—by refusing to appeal.

Though the vengeance penalty has proved not to be a deterrent and its main selling point is providing "closure" to families and friends of victims, the state has spent, by conservative estimate, more than $10 million to prosecute death penalty cases over the past 19 years. Seven of those convicted had their judgments or sentences reversed, including most recently double murderer Mitchell Rupe, whose appeals took 18 years and cost $1 million. The remainder are on the road to lengthy appeals, often 10 or more years.

Justice Guy found that recently in King County, four death penalty cases took an average 40 months to decide, with an average cost of $433,262. Conversely, nine aggravated murder cases where the death penalty was not sought averaged 23 months and $195,538.

Death penalty proponents argue costs can be reduced by limiting appeals, but that could undercut Washington's thorough review of such cases—a process that, at least in modern times, has apparently prevented execution of the innocent or wrongly convicted. As Justice Guy notes in his report, Illinois governor George Ryan recently imposed an execution moratorium after a newspaper analysis of capital cases revealed that 13 death row inmates in Illinois were found to have been wrongly convicted, and had their sentences overturned, in recent years. The Chicago Tribune report also found that courts had tossed out at least 381 homicide convictions nationally since 1963 due to prosecutorial misconduct alone. Of the 381 defendants whose convictions were overturned, 67 had been sentenced to death.

Guy says "punctilious care" is required by courts due to the "considerable potential for error and the irreversible nature of the death sentence." The US Supreme Court seemed to be expressing that sensitivity as well when it recently reversed two death penalty cases in one day.

Washington's review process may grow even longer—but even more reliable—now that Governor Gary Locke has signed a law requiring postconviction DNA testing in cases of capital punishment and mandatory life sentences. Collectively, these reforms involve about 370 current state inmates.

Guy, who is retiring this year, says he'll leave it to the Legislature to "determine whether the [capital punishment] expense is necessary and in the public interest." But even the impartial chief justice had to note in his report that the consensus of experts "is that death penalty law has become increasingly complicated, convoluted, and involved." As with any law, it's all in the execution.

 
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