Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Washington's Death Penalty

Since King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng has announced that the state will seek the death penalty for Conner Schierman (the man accused of stabbing four neighbors and burning their house), the issue of proportionality is on the table again. Natalie Singer, If Ridgway got life, would anyone get death?, Seattle Times, Jan. 31, 2007.

Like other defense attorneys in recent years, [Schierman's attorney, James]Conroy argues that it's unfair for his client, accused of four murders, to face the death penalty when Ridgway, convicted of so many more, did not.

"It defies any rational analysis," he said. "I'm disappointed for my client, [but] I am more troubled by the system we have in place. Permitting any prosecutor to pick and choose is fundamentally flawed."
That basic proportionality argument did not persuade the state Supreme Court, when it was one of a number of arguments made on appeal in State v. Cross (March 30, 2006), Findlaw links: majority (Chambers, J.), concurrence (Alexander, C.J.), dissent (C. Johnson, J.).
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[ed] here), Washington's death penalty is constitutional and nothing about Gary Ridgway changes that.
(By the way, Trial Ad instructor Todd Maybrown was one of Dayva Cross's attorneys on appeal.)

Two bills in the legislature (HB 1518 and SB 5786) would stay death sentences until July 1, 2008, and set up a task force to study the death penalty. Here's part of the bill digest for HB 1518:

Finds that historically most death sentences imposed in Washington have been reversed and rarely imposed. The legislature further finds that it is in the state's interest to determine whether the state's capital punishment system is applied fairly and proportionally, and whether the continued allocation of substantial time, resources, and moneys spent on capital trials and appeals is warranted. * * *
Creates a death penalty task force for the purpose of conducting a review of the existing death penalty statutes and court rules to determine the following:

(1) The uniformity of decision making by prosecuting attorneys in terms of charging defendants with aggravated first degree murder and the criteria used in such decisions;
(2) The impact of race, ethnicity, gender, and economic status on the likelihood of a defendant being charged with aggravated first degree murder;
(3) The administration of Washington's death penalty law since the enactment of chapter 10.95 RCW to determine whether it is applied randomly or arbitrarily;
(4) The costs associated with capital trials and appeals;
(5) Whether there are revisions to existing statutes and court rules that, if implemented, would decrease the likelihood of an inappropriate imposition of the death penalty.

Related stories in the Times list four Executions in Washington since 1975 and the Washington state offenders awaiting execution

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