Death penalty divides local law enforcers

Like the rest of the country, top law officers in the area are not unanimous on the issue.

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WALLA WALLA — Top law enforcement officials in Walla Walla County express differing views when discussing the death penalty — just like most of the nation.

Walla Walla police Chief Chuck Fulton is opposed to capital punishment; College Place Chief Dennis Lepiane is a proponent.

And County Sheriff Mike Humphreys says a public vote on the issue may be in order.

Polls suggest that nationwide, about two-thirds of people support capital punishment, but are split down the middle when a sentence of life without parole is mentioned as an alternative.

"We’re very fragmented in this country," Lepiane said.

None of the three feels any sympathy for murderers, but Fulton and Humphreys don’t believe the death penalty law is a deterrent to committing the crime.

"At the time, (perpetrators do not) think about that," Humphreys said. "They don’t think they’re going to get caught. And if they do get caught, there are a lot of court proceedings making it likely (execution is) not going to happen."

Humphreys points to Robert Yates as a case in point. Yates killed two people in Walla Walla County in 1975 when the death penalty didn’t exist in Washington state. Then after capital punishment was reinstated, he murdered at least 13 other people.

Lepiane has a different take. Suppose Yates had been identified and captured in 1975, a death penalty law had been in place and he was executed. "Obviously it would have been a deterrent for him back then because he wouldn’t have had an opportunity to kill all those other people," Lepiane said.

"I really believe there is a deterrent factor in the death penalty. To what degree I couldn’t tell you."

Humphreys said the death penalty is expensive, but the desires of victims’ families should weigh heavily into any consideration of abolishing the law.

"I think maybe it should go to a public vote. It’s costing us this much money. Let the people make that decision," Humphreys said.

Fulton, however, would rather see the Legislature abolish the practice to avoid widespread emotional debate that would arise from an election.

He believes the death penalty just creates more victims. The four executions at the Washington State Penitentiary in past years have resulted in a "carnival atmosphere" that adversely affects penitentiary workers, law enforcement officers responsible for maintaining security and everyone else involved.

"That saddens me about our system," Fulton said. "I feel sorry for all of those who have to deal with that."

He added he has "absolutely zero remorse" for somebody who commits murder. "But for the whole of society, I don’t know if the death penalty is truly the answer."

Lepiane remarked that it could be if it was enforced with more regularity on certain people who have unquestionably committed heinous crimes. And the alternative of life without parole doesn’t make sense to him.

"If you’re so dangerous that you will never have an opportunity to come back into society, then why are we bothering keeping you alive?" Lepiane asked.

A survey this year of leading criminologists ranks expanding the death penalty as dead last in reducing violent crime. No. 1? Reducing drug abuse, which makes sense to the local officials.

Humphreys believes 70 to 80 percent of all crimes are related to the use of illicit drugs or alcohol.

"If we’re going to reduce the drug abuse, we’re going to reduce all crimes," he said.

"From thefts to murder."

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

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