Seattle PI: Cost of Death Penalty are Punishing the Innocent

I recently had coffee in Seattle with Sister Helen Prejean, who has been a tireless voice of opposition to the death penalty.

Author of “Dead Man Walking,” many might imagine Sister Helen as Susan Sarandon in the movie based on the book. Sister Helen was amazed that Washington, as seldom as it executes, still has a death penalty. As she colorfully put it, “You have a Cadillac that you never take out of the garage – why not get rid of it?”

Indeed, why not?

Unlike states like New Jersey or New Mexico, which did away with the death penalty, or Connecticut, where the Legislature’s vote to abolish the death penalty was vetoed by a Republican governor, or Oregon, where key legislators support pushing a constitutional referendum abolishing the death penalty, in Washington we couldn’t even get a House hearing on my bill (with 19 co-sponsors) to reduce criminal justice expenses by eliminating the death penalty in favor of life incarceration.

Why not join the 15 states, including Sarah Palin’s Alaska, that do not have the death penalty?

And while Washington executes with much less frequency than some other states, we do have executions that are imminent – the threat of which caused our prison system’s nationally-known top doctor, Dr. Marc Stern, to resign out of moral protest. He felt that it violated medical ethics to do things like ensure the state’s lethal-injection table was in working order. His sacrifice should shame those who fear an open discussion of the issue for merely political reasons.

A New Yorker article recently explored the case of a man executed in execution-happy Texas based on a flawed arson investigation that had concluded he was responsible for burning his house down with his three children inside. Experts reviewing the evidence that led to his conviction concluded it was invalid, and the fire was likely an accident.

In a true horror story last month, Ohio spent two hours in a failed effort to lethally inject Romell Broom – jabbing him numerous times while he rolled around, and even sat up, on his gurney trying to accommodate his executioners.

In sustaining the death penalty, its advocates have strayed far beyond its alleged deterrent role. Indeed, arch-conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently dissented in a case and stated the constitution doesn’t forbid “the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.”

In other words, even proving one’s innocence in Justice Scalia’s view wouldn’t be enough to stop an execution. Assuming that the death penalty is a deterrent, what’s the deterrent message in killing someone who’s proved his innocence?

Similarly, one wonders what remaining deterrent effect the death penalty could have in a state like Washington where a man like Gary Ridgway, who killed at least 48 people, gets life imprisonment.

This is not merely a theoretical issue for me. I’ve worked on murder cases, and was once charged with advising on whether to proceed with an execution.

A recent New York Times editorial, “High Cost of Death Row,” noted that “keeping inmates on death row in Florida costs taxpayers $51 million a year more than holding them for life without parole” while California’s “death row costs taxpayers $114 million a year beyond the cost of imprisoning convicts for life.”

Simply put, beyond its moral dimensions, the punishment inflicted upon the innocent by diverting precious resources to the death penalty is another great reason to abolish it.

Would, for example, any senior who lost adult day health after this past session – such as the woman with Alzheimer’s whose husband testified recently in Olympia about her profound physical deterioration since that her care ceased – state he or she was happy to make that trade for maintaining the expense of the death penalty?

In this time of terribly scarce governmental resources, can we afford both the costs of maintaining a just society and the death penalty too? The overwhelming evidence of any number of severe cuts this past legislative session proves we cannot.

Recently, for example, the cash-strapped state crime victims’ compensation fund announced two-thirds cuts in reimbursement rates for counseling victims – effectively denying crime victims’ life-sustaining emotional support. We simply cannot keep punishing the innocent, including actual crime victims, by keeping a death penalty we cannot afford.

Costs of Death Penalty are Punishing the Innocent
Posted on October 1, 2009 | By Brendan Williams
© 2014 Hearst Seattle Media, LLC, Seattle PI

Original article can be read at



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