The False Promise of the Death Penalty

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BrokenGavelTwo high-profile death penalty trials are underway in King County Superior Court: the 2009 assassination of Seattle Police Officer Timothy Brenton and the 2007 Christmas Eve mass murders of three generations of the Anderson family in Carnation. Both crimes were horrific, senseless acts of hatred and violence that caused incredibly searing pain, suffering and loss for the victims’ families, friends, neighbors and the broader community.

But, the death penalty delivers nothing more than a false promise.

I was a Seattle police officer in the 1970s. I spent many nights in my patrol car doing exactly what Officer Brenton and his partner, Britt Sweeney, were doing when they were shot. As a Councilmember, I went to Harborview the night Officer Brenton died. I spoke briefly with Officer Sweeney. The targeted murder of Officer Brenton strikes a deep chord of grief within me. As a father of three and grandfather of two, the slaying of the Andersons does the same.

I want swift and certain justice delivered to their killers, but the death penalty won’t provide that swiftness or certainty.

Some people believe they are safer because of the death penalty; they’re not. 

The death penalty does not deter homicides and does not make our communities safer. A review from the National Research Council concludes that no credible evidence exists to suggest that it does.

Some people believe justice is better served by the death penalty; it’s not. The pursuit of capital punishment delays final resolution for victims’ families and communities, inflicting even further pain and suffering. Of the 9 current offenders on Washington’s death row, an average of 17 years has passed since the year of their crime. Seventeen years! There is no swiftness or certainty in that reality.

At the end of the long road of appeals, the majority of Washington’s death row inmates have had their sentences converted to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Spending millions of dollars and dragging victims’ families through years and sometimes decades of uncertainty only to end up in the same place (a sentence of life without parole) is not a worthwhile exercise of justice. And moving faster is not a viable option; the appeals processes and protections exist for a very important reason: one hundred fifty innocent individuals and counting have been exonerated from death rows across the country. We make mistakes, but there’s no room for error when it comes to administering the death penalty.

Some people believe we administer the death penalty fairly; the evidence shows we do not. A University of Washington professor’s analysis of Washington’s aggravated first degree murder cases suggests the death penalty is applied disproportionately across Washington. Juries were 4.5 times more likely to impose a death sentence on a black defendant than on similarly situated white defendants.

Why do I make these points now? It’s certainly not to minimize the trauma, the grief and the pain experienced by those most closely connected to the tragic deaths of Officer Brenton and the Anderson family. I make these points now because these cases serve as examples of how the death penalty leaves us with missed opportunities for safer communities and a better justice system.

Earlier this month, a report from Seattle University found that, on average, death penalty cases in Washington cost about 1.5 times more than other aggravated first-degree murder cases, including post-conviction incarceration costs. This amounts to more than $1 million per case in extra costs.

The costs of the current King County cases have risen above $15 million. This is no trivial sum. $15 million could mean 30 more police officers patrolling our streets for 5 years. It could deliver to more than 3,000 families the support of the Nurse-Family Partnership, an early intervention program for first-time, low-income mothers and their babies that is proven to reduce involvement in the criminal justice system later in life. It could provide high-quality preschool for more than 1,300 children, another proven investment that reduces criminal behavior. It could enhance staffing on police “cold case” investigative teams, or provide stronger victim support and advocacy services.

The death penalty does not strengthen or protect the women and men of our police departments, it will not deter future acts of violence or murder, it will not bring meaningful and positive change to our communities, and it cannot be administered both quickly and fairly. This is the false promise of the death penalty.

Eighteen states have abolished capital punishment in favor of safe and just alternatives, including six in the last eight years. Governor Jay Inslee’s moratorium on executions last year was an appropriate first step; let’s go further and finish the job by abolishing the death penalty (read a letter from the Mayor, City Council and the City Attorney urging Seattle's representatives in Olympia to support safe and just alternatives). We’ll save millions of dollars that could be used more effectively and we will achieve the type of justice we really deserve—swift, certain and fair.