On my first day as a Kitsap County deputy prosecutor, I took an oath to support and defend Washington’s Constitution and laws. While the words seemed important at the time, their true gravity struck me two years later when I was assigned to prosecute Jonathan Gentry for raping and murdering 12-year-old Cassie Holden.
Gentry will be first to receive Gov. Jay Inslee’s misguided mercy under the death penalty moratorium he announced Feb. 11 Gentry had been expected to be put to death this year.
Cassie was abducted from a path, dragged through the woods, sexually assaulted and beaten to death with a rock. She was struck so many times, and with such ferocity, that the county medical examiner was unable to determine the number or sequence of the blows. In the minutes before Gentry decided her life was his to take, Cassie had been picking flowers for her mother.
Twelve impartial jurors took an oath to apply the facts to the law and then render a just verdict. In June 1991, they convicted Gentry and sentenced him to death.
Jurors told me two things after the trial. One, it was the hardest decision of their lives. Two, they made the difficult decision because the facts and law required it, and they had taken oaths to follow the law no matter how hard it might be. They did their jobs and honored their oaths.
Cassie’s father, Frank Holden, also took an oath before testifying. When he testified in the trial’s penalty phase, he told the jury about Cassie’s hopes and dreams — that she wanted to be an author and have twins. A little girl’s dreams, her dad acknowledged, but hers to have. He did his job and honored his oath.
In the past 23 years, numerous judges have scrutinized Gentry’s conviction and affirmed it. They include a majority of our state Supreme Court justices on three separate occasions, the federal District Court, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court when it declined to accept review. All the judges tasked with reviewing Gentry’s case did their jobs — they followed their oaths.
Gov. Inslee did not issue his moratorium because anyone on death row is innocent. Nor could he. In Gentry’s case, even an additional DNA analysis performed post-conviction at Gentry’s request implicated him in Cassie’s death, essentially excluding every other human on earth. Such is the power of DNA to exonerate or convict.
Gov. Inslee, on the other hand, conducted a “months-long” review to reach his own conclusion that the death penalty was not evenly applied. Had he spent more time studying the death penalty process in Washington, his concern might have been allayed by understanding our state Supreme Court’s unique proportionality review of all death sentences.
In conducting this review, our state’s highest court analyzes every death penalty verdict against all other aggravated murder cases ever filed in this state to determine if the sentence of death is proportionate or fair.
In concluding that Gentry’s death sentence “was not excessive or disproportionate,” the state Supreme Court found that his crime “was particularly brutal and spanned a long period of time” and that “the child suffered substantial pain and terror before her death.”
The majority of justices also considered it important that “Gentry had been convicted of a prior violent felony which had resulted in the victim’s death (and) that shortly before this murder Gentry had raped a teenage girl at knife point.” Our Supreme Court justices carefully considered every argument for overturning the jury’s sentence, and rejected them.
When he was inaugurated, Gov. Inslee took an oath to uphold and defend Washington’s Constitution and laws. Our state Constitution includes a crime victims’ bill of rights, intended to afford crime victims a voice in our criminal-justice system. The governor’s decision is very troubling. That it came at the expense of violent crime victims like Cassie and her father is heartbreaking.
Brian Moran is an attorney in Seattle. He previously served as chief deputy for the Washington state attorney general and deputy prosecutor in Kitsap County.