On Death and Dealing

The Green River plea bargain and the case for capital punishment.


As we ponder the real face of the real killerand as we try to understand what motivates such menwe must also consider what to do with them.

In the Green River case, the prosecutors have struck a deal with Gary Ridgway to take the death penalty off the table in exchange for information that will clear 48 murder cases and offer some semblance of closure to the victims' families. There's a case to be made that some cases are exceptional, and this surely is one: The biggest known serial-killing spree in American history, a decades-long saga of slow, relentless slaughter of the innocent and the outcast.

Resolving it is an important, imperfect triumph of sorts.

Knowing who the killer is and preventing him from ever killing again is vital to restoring our community's health.

Yet Americans seem increasingly uncomfortable with the death penalty, and some opponents of it say the prosecutor's Green River bargain raises questions: If you don't execute the Green River Killer for what he did, how can you execute anyone? The law must be just, even-handed, and applied equally.

It's a good point as far as it goes, but all cases aren't equal. And using the Ridgway deal to argue against the death penalty is absurd, because this is an example of the death penalty's effectiveness. Without the death penaltya real, live death penaltyit's likely that the prosecutors and police wouldn't have had the leverage to get the killer to come clean and put him behind bars forever. Would Ridgway have confessed without the very real fear of losing his life? It's unlikely that he was motivated by goodwill or a spasm of conscience. Most people in his shoes would want to save their necks. Ted Bundy tried to deal his way out of death by playing games about trading information right up until the end. Robert Yates confessed to his murders in Spokane to avoid the death penalty, though his deal had a Pierce County loophole, and he wound up on death row anyway.

SO THE DEATH PENALTY provides leverage, if it's a genuine death penalty. Even so, here in Washington the job of executioner is hardly a full-time profession: 77 executions since 1904, according to the Department of Corrections. There are lengthy appeals and reviews, and occasionally loopholes, as when murderer Mitchell Rupe, while on death row, ate his way out of the noose by becoming too fat to hang. Apparently, Dr. Atkins never made it to the state pen in Walla Walla. Thanks to Rupe, the first choice for death is lethal injection; a killer has to ask for a hanging nowadays.

But does the death penalty do more? Clearly, there are major flaws in the system: There are too many innocents on death row, too many people convicted and sentenced as the result of bias, racism, and incompetence within the justice system. Such problems across the country have to be addressed, even if it means more moratoriums, as in Illinois.

On the other hand, the death penalty is in need of fixing, not scrapping. And there are efforts to do that. A story in the Nov. 2 New York Times describes one governor's attempt to address the issue by writing "a new kind of death penalty." Republican Mitt Romney of Massachusetts wants to ensure that only the guilty are executed by requiring a high standard of scientific proof of guilt, such as DNA evidence. Scholars question whether justice can ever be linked to perfect scienceindeed, science tends to favor doubt on most days. Romney's reforms are a kind of "compassionate conservative's" death penaltyexecute only the guilty. Who could argue with that, except those who don't believe in the death penalty at all, or those who are recklessly bloodthirsty?

Should the standard of proof be high for the death penalty? Absolutely. Should we do everything possible to make sure the system is fair and just? Of course. Should we execute the retarded? Of course not. Should the death penalty be rare? I think so.

BUT IT SHOULD be there. As in the Green River case, it can be a tool to gain cooperation and a semblance of closure in an unprecedented case. At other times, it can restore the general public's faith in society: There are some crimes that demand payment of the ultimate price. No adult's life should be so sacred that one can expect always to get away with murder.

The Green River Killer ought to swing. But the death penalty is also a poker chip. Sometimes it works even without a hanging.


This article was updated 12.42 p.m. PST 11/05/03.

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