NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Friday, September 14th, 2012

Washington lawmakers should act to abolish executions in the 2013 legislative session

A few months ago, as spring reached its apex, Connecticut’s Gov­er­nor, Dan­nel Mal­loy, a Demo­c­rat, signed a bill out­law­ing cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. “Con­necti­cut joins six­teen oth­er states and the rest of the indus­tri­al­ized world by tak­ing this action,” he not­ed as he signed the bill into law.

The signs are obvi­ous for any­one who looks. Cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment is in decline. How long will it take Wash­ing­ton to join Con­necti­cut and the rest of the indus­tri­al­ized world? If you believe, as we do, that abol­ish­ing exe­cu­tions is an imper­a­tive action for a civ­i­lized soci­ety to take, your next step should be to join the Wash­ing­ton Coali­tion to Abol­ish the Death Penal­ty and learn more.

The Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca is one of a small hand­ful of coun­tries that con­tin­ues to exe­cute its own cit­i­zens (though, as men­tioned, some states have out­lawed this bar­bar­ic prac­tice). With forty-three exe­cu­tions in 2011, the U. S. ranks fifth — behind Chi­na, Iran, Sau­di Ara­bia, and Iraq. Those are not coun­tries whose human rights records deserve emulation.

We should all be alarmed by the fre­quen­cy with which inno­cent men and women are sen­tenced to death. When Illi­nois out­lawed exe­cu­tions in 2011, Demo­c­ra­t­ic Gov­er­nor Pat Quinn declared that it was “impos­si­ble to fix a sys­tem that wrong­ly con­demned twen­ty men who were lat­er found to be innocent.”

He was speak­ing only of Illi­nois; since 1973 one hun­dred and forty peo­ple in twen­ty-six states have been released from death row with evi­dence of their inno­cence. Why do peo­ple get unjust­ly con­vict­ed? Because human beings make mis­takes. And all judges and jurors are human beings.

Some­times the pros­e­cu­tion with­holds excul­pa­to­ry evi­dence, some­times sus­pects are coerced into mak­ing false confessions.

Some­times eye­wit­ness­es make mis­tak­en identifications.

Plea bar­gains can effec­tive­ly bribe wit­ness­es into mak­ing false tes­ti­mo­ny. All of these things are doc­u­ment­ed to hap­pen with sig­nif­i­cant frequency.

Thank­ful­ly, many pros­e­cu­tors have begun to real­ize that cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment serves no use­ful pur­pose. That may help explain why exe­cu­tion rates in the U.S. have been falling pret­ty steadi­ly since a high of nine­ty-eight in 1999.

But as exe­cu­tion rates drop, the moral­i­ty and con­sti­tu­tion­al­i­ty of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment con­tin­ues to be debat­ed. With exe­cu­tion rates a frac­tion of a per­cent of the mur­der rate, appli­ca­tion of the death penal­ty is most­ly a mat­ter of chance. Some­what like “being struck by light­ning”, as Jus­tice Pot­ter Stew­art said in 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty.

Its arbi­trary appli­ca­tion was the main con­sid­er­a­tion in that rul­ing, and the hope that a sys­tem had been devised to pre­vent it was the ratio­nale for its return in 1976. But that hope has proved false.

It’s time to abol­ish exe­cu­tions once and for all.

Anoth­er key con­sti­tu­tion­al issue is whether the death penal­ty actu­al­ly serves the goals of ret­ri­bu­tion and deter­rence. The sta­tis­ti­cal evi­dence is a resound­ing NO. In study after study, states with­out cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment have con­sis­tent­ly low­er mur­der rates. In 2010, the aver­age mur­der rate in death penal­ty states was 4.6, while that in states with­out the death penal­ty was 2.9 per 100,000. The exis­tence of the death penal­ty cheap­ens the val­ue of life.

Each time a state enacts leg­is­la­tion out­law­ing cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment, it brings us clos­er to the day when the U.S. will be able to join the rest of the civ­i­lized world in respect­ing the sanc­ti­ty of human life. Wash­ing­ton has a choice. We can help bring about mean­ing­ful and pos­i­tive change, or we can let change be brought to us.

For me, the choice is obvi­ous. I hope it is for you, too.

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