Capital punishment issue isn't simple

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WALLA WALLA -- It seems the older I get, the harder it is to figure some things out.

Issues that were clear to me even a decade or two ago are becoming fuzzy.

There's one in particular I want to discuss since it's been in the news lately.

Capital punishment.

My career as a reporter has required researching various topics, keeping abreast of governmental and social trends, and acquiring a working knowledge of criminal and court processes.

And, being human, I often struggle with what I believe is right, wrong, working or broken.

I regularly reported on events at the Washington State Penitentiary for about 30 years and witnessed three executions in the 1990s.

Triple-murderer Westley Allan Dodd was hanged on Jan. 5, 1993 -- the first time the penitentiary gallows was used in 30 years.

Charles Rodman Campbell, who also killed three people, plunged from the trapdoor the following year.

Then another triple-murderer, Jeremy Vargas Sagastegui, succumbed to a lethal dose of drugs injected by authorities on Oct. 13, 1998.

As a witness, I became personally involved in each of those killers' final moments, so I thought long and hard about the death penalty.

At first I was ambivalent, confused. Dodd was executed only because he wanted to be, saying he must die or he would kill again. He rejected all efforts at appeal.

It was a media circus when he was killed and I was scared to death. But ultimately I figured if he wants to go, so be it, and I mostly tried to ignore my feelings. (But that's really impossible for anybody -- even journalists -- no matter what anybody tries to tell you.)

It was way different with Campbell.

Not only did he cut the throats of his three victims in 1982, he fought tooth-and-nail to escape the fate he had inflicted. Finally, following appeal after appeal and an 11th-hour stay by a divided court in 1989 that lasted five years, Campbell died in front of me and 16 other witnesses on May 27, 1994.

For me, it wasn't soon enough. Like most state residents, I was convinced it was time for justice -- and retribution, if nothing else. An eye-for-an-eye looked really good.

Our law is structured to eliminate the "worst of the worst." And Campbell sure fit that definition. I wrote in a column the day he was hanged that, as a state resident, I was a willing executioner and Campbell rightfully paid the ultimate price for his crimes.

Then came two other "volunteers." Suicides, if you will. There was Sagastegui in 1998, the first to die in the state by lethal injection, followed in 2001 by James Homer Elledge, who was executed for killing a woman three years earlier.

But there's been nothing since except a diminishing death row.

So now I'm confused again. When does the "justice and retribution" I felt at the Campbell execution become a fleeting pipe dream, and just too expensive and futile to pursue?

Under state law, most murderers aren't eligible for the death penalty and don't even spend the rest of their lives in prison. In potential death penalty cases -- involving aggravating, heinous circumstances -- an alternative sentence is available, which is life without parole. The fact is that in the past decade, fewer death penalty cases have been pursued and juries have imposed fewer death sentences.

Meanwhile, courts have spared a larger number of condemned prisoners who previously were sentenced. According to a Washington State Bar Association report, nine death sentences were reversed during the four-year period from 2002-2006 compared to 10 reversals over the entire previous decade.

And support for the death penalty for someone convicted of murder has waned nationwide. A Gallup poll last year found that 64 percent of Americans approved; 30 percent were against. That's down from a high of 80 percent support in 1994. (A 2006 Gallup poll showed that 48 percent support life without parole when given a choice between that punishment and the death penalty, which was favored by 47 percent.)

Our death row in Washington state now consists of eight men. Three came close to their dates with the executioner in recent months, but were spared -- at least for the time being -- by court orders granting stays through appeals.

Two of the executions were halted essentially at the last minute. And in one of those cases, the state Supreme Court issued the stay after rejecting similar legal arguments only three days before.

The court is deeply divided. The decision to delay the execution of Cal Coburn Brown in March, for instance, was split five justices to four.

That's the same numerical division as in a landmark 2006 ruling. In that case, a razor-thin court majority reaffirmed the death penalty law as constitutional even though Green River killer Gary Ridgway -- who was responsible for at least 48 murders -- got life without parole in a plea bargain.

How can the law be fair, opponents argue, if such a serial killer -- the real "worst of the worst" -- gets life in prison when each man currently on death row killed three or fewer people?

And remember Robert Yates? In 2000, he was ordered to prison for the rest of his life after pleading guilty in Spokane County to 13 killings, including those of a young man and woman along Mill Creek near Walla Walla in 1975. But he later was sentenced in Pierce County to die for murdering two Tacoma women. His appeal of the death sentence is ongoing.

Other considerations: Polls reveal few Americans truly believe the death penalty is a deterrent. The state's top prison doctor quit in the throes of the capital punishment controversy. Currently no team exists at the penitentiary to carry out an execution. And although deemed constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, procedures involved in lethal injection still are being subjected to legal scrutiny.

The debates seem to be heating up and getting louder. New Mexico got rid of capital punishment in that state this year. And two proposed laws to abolish the death penalty in Washington in favor of sentences of life without parole were introduced in the Legislature. The bills didn't pass, but will be reintroduced next year, the second year of the current biennium.

So is now the time to further the discussion?

We at the Union-Bulletin believe it's the perfect opportunity. After reading information we've researched for this series of articles, please talk with your friends and family about capital punishment. And be sure to weigh in by leaving comments on our Web site, writing letters to the editor, and of course notifying your legislative representatives.

Does the death penalty make sense? Is it moral, necessary, OK? Or are we evolving away from state-sanctioned killing, realizing like other sophisticated nations throughout the world that it's wrong and degrading to a civilized society?

Does putting to death an evildoer pave the way for victims' families to heal or do seemingly endless delays lead to further agony?

Your arguments shouldn't just be rooted in ethical conscience, empathy or political ideology, either. Keep in mind that we in this state have executed only one man in nearly half a century who has not been willing to die for his crimes. All the while, we have spent millions of dollars for prosecution and defense of death penalty cases -- far more, frankly, than it would cost to keep the eight men currently on death row locked up for life.

Should we continue capital punishment to send a clear signal that certain types of behavior won't be tolerated? Or does capital punishment make little practical sense in a time of roller-coaster economic conditions and the challenge to fund schools, health care, transportation, law enforcement agencies and traditional crime prevention programs?

Are we taking a valiant, honorable, righteous stand against evil or are we stubbornly trying to keep alive a seldom-carried-out law, which uncontrollable and unpredictable court rulings are just one justice away from killing?

After talking about all this, we may decide the death penalty continues to execute justice.

Or we might find it's outlived its usefulness.

Terry McConn can be reached at terrymcconn@wwub.com or 526-8319.

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