High Bar for Death Penalty in Washington

Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, was spared death in exchange for a life sentence.
Back in 2007, Seattle Times reporter Natalie Singer asked a simple question: If the state of Washington couldn't sentence Gary Ridgway to death, who could it kill?

As you'll recall, Ridgway is the infamous Green River killer, convicted of strangling and murdering dozens of women in the Seattle and Tacoma area in the '80s and '90s. Prosecutors wanted capitol punishment for Ridgway but agreed to spare him in exchange for his cooperation in closing the books on a number of cold cases.

Singer argued that not executing the worst serial killer in state history would set the bar too high for future death penalty prosecutions. She wrote the piece after King County said it would ask for death for Conner Schierman, a 25-year-old man accused of killing four of his neighbors in 2006. Similar in nature, if not in the details, to yesterday's announcement that accused cop-killer Christopher Monfort would be charged with aggravated murder, the only crime eligible for the death penalty.

As King County Deputy Chief Ian Goodhew told us yesterday, since 1980, King County has prosecuted 75 defendants for aggravated murder. They've sought the death penalty in about 20 of those cases and the jury has imposed it in only seven. None of those seven defendants have been put to death, including Cal Brown who was saved by a stay from the State Supreme Court in March eight hours before his planned execution.

This is, admittedly, jumping the gun quite a bit. Even by charging Monfort with aggravated murder, King County still hasn't decided whether to seek the death penalty. And considering the complexity of the case and the extenuating circumstances faced by the defendant (still hospitalized, paralyzed and unable to face arraignment) it'll be a long time before he's ever in front of a jury, let along before they decide on his relative guilt or innocence.

But it's worth revisiting Singer's article if only because the parallels between what she asked then and what's taking place with Monfort now exist. And to remind ourselves that these things take a long time to sort out, death penalty or not. After all, Singer wrote her article because of Schierman's case. One that won't go on trial until next week, nearly three years later.

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