The C Is for Crank

Gov. Inslee Declares Death-Penalty Moratorium

On Governor Jay Inslee's death-penalty moratorium.

By Erica C. Barnett February 11, 2014

The C Is for Crank

As a Texas expat who protested the death penalty during former governor George W. Bush's term—a period during which Texas executed 152 prisoners, more than under any governor in history, including Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman executed in Texas in 135 years—I was thrilled today to hear the news that Gov. Jay Inslee has declared a moratorium on the death penalty in Washington state.

Washington's nine death penalty inmates, Inslee's office told PubliCola, will not be executed under his watch, under the governor's prerogative to grant reprieves for death sentences. 

And Inslee said in a statement: 

“I want to acknowledge that there are many good protections built into Washington state’s death penalty law. But there have been too many doubts raised about capital punishment. There are too many flaws in the system. And when the ultimate decision is death there is too much at stake to accept an imperfect system.

“Let me say clearly that this policy decision is not about the nine men on death row in Walla Walla. I don’t question their guilt or the gravity of their crimes. They get no mercy from me. This action does not commute their sentences or issue any pardons to any offender. But I do not believe their horrific offenses override the problems that exist in our capital punishment system.”

I absolutely agree with the governor's statement that the death penalty is applied inequitably (primarily against poor young men of color without access to good legal representation) and "questionabl[y]" (of the 32 death row cases since the penalty was reinstated in 1981, 18 inmates have had their sentences reduced to life in prison and one has been set free).

But for me, opposition to the death penalty has never been primarily about innocence (though that is a critical reason to oppose the ultimate penalty) or fairness (though the death penalty is unquestionably racist and classist at its core). 

More important than those concerns is my core belief that the state does not have the right to take an individual's life—in a premedidated, state-sanctioned killing—for retribution, justice, as a deterrent, or for any other reason. It's barbaric. It's wrong.

Or, to quote anti-death-penalty activist Marietta Jaeger, a hero of mine who fought for a sentence of life without parole, rather than the death penalty, for the man who kidnapped and murdered her 7-year-old daughter, Susie: 

I realized if I gave myself to that desire for revenge, it would obsess and consume me. So, I promised to cooperate with whatever could move my heart from fury to forgiveness. ... 

I realized that to kill him in Susie’s name would not restore her life; it would only make another victim and another grieving family.

In the only statement I've seen so far that addresses the concept of moral opposition to the death penalty (which, again, isn't opposed to the other fairness- and justice-based arguments against it), state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, who has repeatedly sponsored legislation to abolish the death penalty, wrote: 

As the sponsor of legislation for the past 5 years on this topic I feel a profound sense of moral responsibility to elevate the dialogue in our state. It is a powerful indication of the changing sentiment in Washington State and nationally when we see 18 states that have outlawed the death penalty and 7 states have imposed a moratorium.

For all of us in public life, the pain of knowing the suffering of victims must be balanced with an equitable, enforceable public policy. I believe the death penalty is below us as a civilized society and I look forward to a respectful, authentic public conversation about legislation on this issue.

Contacted by phone this afternoon, Carlyle added, "Fundamentally, on a moral level, I believe that the death penalty is below us, as a civilized society, because it does not reflect our values. ... To deny the concept that people can experience renewal—and that is no reflection on the depths of the crimes or the unimaginable sufferin of the victims—but I believe that no moral renewal comes to victims and to society from the state taking a life." 

Carlyle, an observant Jew, also said his religious convictions informed his opposition

"It's rooted in my religious conviction. I personally believe that he belief that all people can contribute good in the world. That [belief] comes from a deep-seated religious conviction that there is always hope. And that doesn't mean that someone shouldn't spend every single day remaining of their life, as a perpetrator, in prison, but it does mean that the state does not have the ability to effect restitution or respect to victims or any other goal by taking the life of the perpetrator." 

Meanwhile, Mayor Ed Murray, who sponsored legislation to replace the death penalty with a life sentence without the possibility of parole, issued a statement that was, in my opinion, surprisingly tepid.

“I applaud Governor Inslee today for his choice to put a moratorium on executions in this state. We have certainly seen evidence that the death penalty has been applied unevenly over the years in many cases of race and social justice.  As DNA evidence and other advances have been made in technology, more than 140 death row inmates have been exonerated in this country since 1973. Governor Inslee’s bold move today is the first step to righting this uneven system.”


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