I-695 gets the death penalty and Rupe escapes it.

Rough justice: death, taxes, and I-695.

Rough justice: death, taxes, and I-695.

THE LAST COUPLE of weeks have been a lesson in how one person can make a difference—and why that can be frustrating for everyone involved.

What brought this to mind was Initiative I-695 sponsor Tim Eyman throwing a temper tantrum after King County Superior Court Judge Robert Alsdorf found his car tab/tax vote initiative unconstitutional. Among other things, the judge found that I-695 did not adhere to the legal principle of “rational unity,” meaning essentially that the major subjects of the initiatives were too different to legally belong in one package. Eyman immediately engaged in some irrational disunity as he tore up a poster, called the ruling “despicable,” and asked aloud, “Who gives a damn what the voters want?” Hmmm. Sounds like the kind of reaction public officials had the day after the November election.

Eyman’s ire is understandable. Our political process is often complicated by establishment rules, and Big Money often determines election outcomes. To break through, overcome the usual voter skepticism, and pass the initiative by a solid majority was quite an accomplishment. To then have that law overturned by a guy in a robe, on what is arguably a technicality, must seem incredibly unfair, and even more so when you know the flaw in your paperwork wasn’t seen as a flaw by the voters.

The major, complicating components of I-695 were widely discussed by both opponents and proponents of the measure, and I suspect most voters knew what they were voting for. A preelection poll showed that folks favored I-695 by even greater margins when they learned that it wasn’t simply a car-tab tax cut but would require all new taxes and fees be subject to a public vote. The more opponents cast the initiative as a policy monstrosity, the more people liked it.

Initiative-695 passed despite that it wasn’t limited to a single topic, as the law demands; in fact it passed because it was a far-reaching reform effort. Who wouldn’t be annoyed to have their popular reform ideas overturned by legal fine print?

I SHARED SOME of Eyman’s frustration with the legal system recently. Murderer Mitchell Rupe was sentenced to life in prison last week after a jury could not agree on sentencing him to death. The jury deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of the death penalty, but Mitchell Rupe lives because one person held out. Death penalty votes must be unanimous.

Washington State is a fairly judicious user of the death penalty: We’re no Texas. Only 76 people have been executed here since 1904. Currently 14 people are under sentence of death in the state. Of those 14, at least 10 were convicted of murdering women and at least half of those also raped their victims. All are in appeal limbo; no execution dates are set, and Scott Blonien, head of the capital litigation team at the Attorney General’s office, says it’s unlikely anyone will be put to death in Washington in the year 2000.

State law requires that each death sentence be automatically appealed, whether the condemned wants it or not. And a long series of appeals can delay execution for years if not, as in Rupe’s case, eventually provide a way out. Lawyers and investigators have ample opportunity to find trial flaws and legal technicalities that might save an inmate’s life. Our system demands near-perfection in capital punishment prosecutions.

The law gave Rupe the chance to eat his way to a longer life by allowing him to bloat to over 400 pounds in prison—a weight that would perhaps have caused him to be decapitated in a hanging. Since that would have been cruel and, to say the least, unusual in this day and age, he was eventually resentenced to lethal injection, now the state’s preferred method of execution (though you can request hanging, if you’d prefer it). After more years of legal wrangling, he gained the right to another sentencing trial, and this time found a sympathetic juror. It wasn’t that Rupe wasn’t guilty: He finally apologized for execution of two helpless tellers during a bank robbery in 1981. It wasn’t that Rupe has much left to live for: He’s been ill with hepatitis C, liver disease, and testicular cancer, and his doctors say he’s only got three or four years left. But the juror, apparently with religious conviction, simply believed the death penalty was wrong.

The families of the victims are outraged, of course, having spent 18 years waiting for closure, as they say. They boycotted Rupe’s sentencing hearing last week as a form of protest.

Despite my disappointment at the jury’s verdict—I think Rupe should have been executed, and that he escaped the literal and metaphorical noose for excruciatingly technical reasons after a ridiculous 18-year delay—I do admire the holdout juror. I don’t want to know who he or she is, I don’t need to know why he or she zigged when others zagged. I’ve been a holdout juror myself and know how difficult it can be, even when the stakes aren’t as high as life or death. But I can respect the difficulty with which that decision was made and abided by. I respect that fact that this individual asserted her or his individuality when it counted.

Our system allows for that sometimes. In Eyman’s case, it allows one man to whip up a prairie fire of reform, and take that fight to the courts and aisles of Olympia. In the Rupe case, it allowed one individual to fight for his life and another person to grant him that wish. In both, a kind of complicated justice is being done, whether I agree or not.

Get up-to-date on capital punishment and access profiles of folks on death row by visiting the Washington State Department of Corrections Web site. You’ll need to click on the Frequent Questions button and travel down to the Capital Punishment heading.

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