Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Washington Supreme Court Upholds Death Penalty

Last week the Washington Supreme Court upheld a death sentence over a challenge that it was not proportional, given that Gary Ridgway (the so-called Green River Killer) was not given the death penalty after pleading guilty to 48 counts of murder. Death Sentence Upheld in Triple Murder, Seattle Times, March 31, 2006.

The case, State v. Cross, was narrowly decided. Justice Chambers wrote the majority opinion, in which Justices Ireland, Bridge, Alexander, and Fairhurst joined. Justice Alexander also wrote a brief concurring opinion. Justice Charles Johnson wrote a dissent, joined by Justices Madsen, Sanders, and Owens.

Cross raised several arguments on appeal, including alleged errors in jury selection, absence of a premeditation instruction, ineffective assistance of counsel, and the constitutionality of the death penalty.

On the death penalty issue, Justice Chambers wrote:

Since Cross's trial, the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway, was caught, prosecuted, and sentenced to life in prison. We cannot begin to calculate the harm his abhorrent murders caused. The fact he will live out his life in prison instead of facing the death penalty has caused many in our community to seriously question whether the death penalty can, in fairness, be proportional when applied to any other defendant.

We do not minimize the importance of this moral question. But it is a question best left to the people and to their elected representatives in the legislature. Under the United States Constitution (the only constitution plead [sic] here), Washington's death penalty is constitutional and nothing about Gary Ridgway changes that.
It may be that there will always be aberrations like Ridgway. We do not believe that these horrific aberrations make a statute unconstitutional. We look at the entirety of first degree aggravated murder prosecutions, not just at whether any particular case is within an order of magnitude of the worst we have known.

We do not agree with those who say that no rational explanation exists for Gary Ridgway escaping a death sentence and Dayva Cross not. See generally Matthew R. Wilmot, Note, Sparing Gary Ridgway: The Demise of the Death Penalty in Washington State? 41 Willamette L. Rev. 435 (2005). Ridgway was spared because a highly respected, honorable, and thoughtful prosecutor made the decision to stay the hand of the executioner in return for information that would otherwise have died some midnight within the walls of the state penitentiary. The information received in return for a life sentence allowed so many families to, at long last, know what happened to their loved ones. While many may disagree with that prosecutor's decision, no one should deny that it was highly rational.

Justice Johnson wrote:
The majority abandons any rational attempt to fulfill our statutory responsibility to conduct a proportionality review, effectively rendering the statutory duty meaningless. Properly recognizing and analyzing what has happened in the administration of capital cases in this state inevitably leads to the conclusion that the sentence of death in this case, and generally, is disproportionate to the sentences imposed in similar cases. Contrary to what we had expected to find when we established an analytical framework to conduct our statutory review, that the worst of the worst offenders would be subject to the death penalty, what has happened is the worst offenders escape death. When Gary Ridgway, the worst mass murderer in this state's history, escapes the death penalty, serious flaws become apparent. The Ridgway case does not "stand alone," as characterized by the majority, but instead is symptomatic of a system where all mass murderers have, to date, escaped the death penalty.
The dissent goes on to discuss other mass murderers in the state who have escaped the death penalty. Only four people convicted of aggravated murder in the first degree have been convicted and executed. Three chose not to exhaust their appeals. Another person sentenced to death committed suicide. There have been some 268 convictions for first degree aggravated murder.

The Seattle Times editorialized:
The state doesn't have to have [the death penalty], or to use it, but the state can.

We think it should, but only for the most heinous of crimes, and in cases for which there is no doubt of guilt. If, under that standard, Washington has only four executions in 15 years, that is acceptable.

The question in this case is whether to have a death penalty at all. And that question, Chambers wisely wrote, "is a question best left to the people and to their elected representatives in the Legislature."
The Proper Role of State's Death Penalty, Seattle Times, April 3, 2006. The P-I agreed that "Ridgway's was a unique case," noting that the "P-I Editorial Board has failed to reach a consensus on the death penalty issue itself." Death Penalty: Goal Is Justice, Seattle P-I, April 4, 2006.

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