Bbetween the two of us — one a former Department of Corrections secretary and the other a former director of prisons and a Washington State Penitentiary superindent — we have participated in all five executions carried out since reinstatement of the death penalty in 1975.
We want to thank Gov. Jay Inslee for announcing that he will not allow more executions on his watch by issuing a moratorium on the death penalty. And we welcome the conversation that needs to happen in Olympia, throughout the state and nationwide to finally end the death penalty.
We write to add our personal perspective, one gained through having actually implemented this flawed and uneven policy.
We have been up close and personal to government executions.
We ourselves have been in the death chamber as nooses have been put around inmates’ necks or they have been strapped to tables to receive IVs.
We have witnessed visibly shaken staff carry out a questionable law that condones killing inmates who have been captured, locked behind bars and long since ceased being a threat to the public.
From our perspective, the main reason to end the death penalty runs much deeper than cost-benefit analyses or the inherent flaws in our criminal-justice system.
Suppose for a moment that the death penalty weren’t so expensive. Suppose we human beings possessed a perfect moral compass that made certain execution truly was reserved for the worst of the worst. Suppose capital punishment really did deter violence.
Even then, the death penalty would still be wrong. No one, individually or as a state, should have the power to end another’s life as a function of government. Ultimately, the death penalty is not about whether a given person deserves to live or die — it’s about whether government should be making that call.
Government policies must be implemented by public servants. Dozens are involved in carrying out an execution. Correctional staff of every rank, administrators, lawyers and their families are all impacted. No one is required to participate in an execution, but for many of us, a sense of duty and loyalty to our colleagues overrides any personal misgivings.
Duties and obligations of corrections professionals are subject to frequent change by the Legislature and courts. What was constitutional and lawful in one decade can be unconstitutional or illegal the next.
When it comes to executing inmates, that’s a horrible moral whipsaw to confront. Washington has already abolished and reinstated the death penalty twice. The time has come for us to stop our government from killing once and for all.
When he spoke on Feb. 11, Gov. Inslee rightly pointed out that capital punishment does not make us safer; it has not proved to deter violence. Moreover, the record shows that the death penalty is uncertain and subject to human error, with the majority of death sentences imposed in this state being reversed.
The costs of pursuing an execution far outweigh the cost of life in prison with no possibility of parole, and the number of capital cases actually resulting in a death sentence is only a small percentage of the total number of these costly prosecutions.
Nor is the death penalty applied fairly and consistently. We personally can attest to having known hundreds of inmates whose crimes were as bad or worse than those of the inmates sitting on death row. As the governor said, that is not equal justice under the law.
Ultimately, though, it is simply wrong to intentionally take a human life — wrong for the criminal and wrong for the state.
Eldon Vail worked in corrections for 35 years, retiring as Secretary of the Washington Department of Corrections in 2011. He is currently a correctional consultant and expert witness. He participated in three executions.
Dick Morgan retired as Director of Prisons in 2010 after 35 years and participation in three executions. He is an expert witness and corrections consultant, and serves on the Walla Walla City Council.