Letters to the Editor
Time to put state’s death penalty to rest
When I became governor in 1965 the death penalty was not an issue. Challenges of redistricting, education, social services and transportation filled the legislative agenda.
Several years later I visited the state penitentiary in Walla Walla with Warden Rhay and walked the halls of that grim prison. On our tour we passed a small courtyard surrounded by bleak prison walls. A dozen inmates were playing basketball in the yard, and I asked the warden why they were isolated. He replied, “These are the men on death row.” I suddenly realized that, as governor, I had the final say over life or death for these men. I inherently felt that was wrong and began a serious study of the death penalty.
I first had to answer the question: “What would my reaction be if one of my children was murdered?” My first reaction was, “Give me a chance for revenge.” But that would not bring my child back, and revenge is a dismal character trait. As I studied more, I found that the death penalty was no deterrent. States with the most executions continued to have the highest murder rates.
Citizens often asked me, “What about the cost of keeping these murderers in prison the rest of their lives?” I found that the cost of a trial and repeated appeals far exceeded the cost of imprisonment for life and delayed justice unconscionably.
Finally, with the development of modern investigative tools and DNA evidence, we are discovering frighteningly numerous cases of mistaken identity and error, which have sent too many innocent humans to their death.
Only once as governor was I faced with the decision of death or stay of execution. John William Hawkins was sentenced to death, and his execution was rapidly approaching. I issued a one-year stay of execution so that the results of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision could be applied to his case. Ultimately the execution was set aside, and he served a life term in prison. I vowed not to allow any executions to take place during my term as governor. The chance for error was too great, and the costs too high.
If the death penalty is no deterrent, is enormously costly and riddled with errors, all that is left is revenge. Is that an appropriate goal for a civilized nation? I think not. Recent statistics show that only four nations execute more people than the U.S.: China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. That is in stark contrast to the entire continent of Europe, which has banned the death penalty.
I urge the legislature to substitute “life in prison without parole” for the death penalty. It would place us with nations and states that have chosen reason over the satisfaction of revenge.
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.