Congressman Reichert Shows Why The Death Penalty Fails

It clearly wasn’t his purpose, but the representative from the 8th Congressional district of Washington, Dave Reichert, made the case against the death penalty.  In an op-ed in the Seattle Times, he planned to rip Gov. Jay Inslee’s execution moratorium a new one. Reichert, you see, had a real job before becoming a congressman:

As a King County Sheriff’s deputy and homicide detective, he was the lead detective of the Green River Task Force. He served as sheriff from 1997 until 2005.

Drawing on his experience as lead in the Green River Task Force, Reichert explained:

Gary Ridgeway is the monster we arrested as the Green River killer in 2001. He would eventually plead guilty to 49 counts of murder although he has claimed that he raped and murdered 20 to 30 more young women.

There was only one way Ridgeway would plead guilty: if the threat of capital punishment, one of law enforcement’s most valuable tools, were taken off the table.

Fair enough, given Reichert’s point of view. From this, he extrapolates:

Every tool in the arsenal of a law-enforcement officer is important — from the sidearms we carry to the law itself. Without these tools, we cannot keep our communities safe or ensure justice is carried out. That is why I believe the death penalty is critical to public safety.

Did you catch that disconnect there?  It’s flagrant, but Reichert ran roughshod over logic to reach his purpose, to conclude that “the death penalty is critical to public safety.”  But with a tiny bit of effort, the flaw is easily revealed.

First, the death penalty did not “keep our communities safe.”  The monster, Ridgeway, raped and murdered somewhere between 49 and 80 young women.  The death penalty didn’t stop the monster, because monsters aren’t stopped by the threat of punishment.  They don’t believe they will be caught, and so they commit heinous crimes.  And Ridgeway, the monster, got away with it. Murdering and raping between 49 and 80 women is beyond horrible, and law enforcement failed to stop him.

But what of the death penalty?  The argument is that it serves a deterrent purpose. It failed. Reichert’s argument is that it failed to stop this monster, just as law enforcement failed to stop this monster. It served no purpose of keeping “our communities safe.”

His second prong is “ensure justice is carried out,” arguing that without the death penalty, Ridgeway would not have pleaded guilty.

Ridgway is a coward. To him the victims’ lives meant nothing, but his own life was far too precious to him to consider losing, so he sent his lawyers to bargain for his life.

While this is certainly true, that the death penalty served as a wedge to secure a guilty plea, does Reichert suggest that without a plea, prosecutors could not have convicted Ridgeway?  If Ridgeway was guilty, and if law enforcement did its job of amassing evidence of guilt, then the death penalty did nothing more than facilitate a conviction that would have been obtained in any event.

So it saved the prosecutors some time and effort? Is that the most that can be offered in defense of the death penalty, that it is a sufficiently powerful threat to push a person to plead guilty rather than put the government to its proof?

Yet, there is a flip side to this “feature” of the death penalty, as it would do the same to the innocent person as the guilty.  The same threat of execution would make an innocent man admit to anything to save himself from death.  When a threat is this powerful, it affects everyone threatened, guilty or not.

There is one aspect of the Green River murders that was served by the plea deal:

In 2003, we convinced Ridgeway not only to plead guilty but to spend six months shedding light on the fate and whereabouts of other young women he killed. We were able to find answers for families who had agonized for years over the whereabouts of their loved ones. I witnessed how those answers could allow families to grieve, say goodbye and begin to rebuild their lives, always remembering their lost loved one.

To provide closure for families is no small thing.  It is certainly understandable how important it would be to the families of lost loved ones to know what became of them, where they are, where they rest.  By no means do I suggest this is not a meaningful benefit of the plea deal cut.

But is it enough of a justification for the death penalty? Not every case involves missing bodies. Indeed, serial killers and rapists are outliers, and missing bodies are rarely offered in justification for executions because they are simply not the normal scenario.  It’s not as if Reichert suggests that the death penalty be limited to those “worst of the worst” cases where there are dozens of missing bodies, and the wedge of death is used to get the killer to reveal what he did with them.

Then again, one could well argue that this is what detectives are supposed to do, find the evidence, find the bodies, unearth those things their finely honed detective skills are claimed to be capable of.  If so, then the death penalty serves to facilitate the work that law enforcement is supposed to do, but either can’t manage or would rather be handed to them by a defendant trying to buy his way out of death.

Reichert’s op-ed was an effort to use the anecdote of the Green River killer to attack the governor’s moratorium on the death penalty, to prove the efficacy of death.  Anecdotes invariably fail for these purposes, as capital punishment is not limited to the particulars of one case, and even if there is a justification for the particular anecdote chosen, it doesn’t translate to other cases.

But even with Reichert’s hand-picked example, presented without opposition and in the fashion suited to making his best possible case, he fails.  As much as some, perhaps most, will agree that if anyone should be executed, it was Ridgeway, the irony is that Ridgeway will not be executed despite his having murdered or raped so many women.

So they saved the cops from heavy lifting and the prosecutors from proving their case, at the risk of innocent people pleading guilty to avoid death.  Reichert tried to prove that capital punishment is needed; instead he proved the opposite.

H/T Doug Berman

24 thoughts on “Congressman Reichert Shows Why The Death Penalty Fails

  1. Pingback: Wednesday is link dump day | a public defender

  2. Mannie

    It would prevent Ridgway from ever murdering again.

    The lack of the death penalty was a major factor when I was planning a murder in WA State. Fortunately, I never needed to carry it out, but a criminal was a potential threat to my wife, who was a witness to his crime. I had a plan on hand to assassinate him. He was luckly – he was sent up on a different charge. I figured the tradeoff would be acceptable. The existence of a death penalty would have changed the calculus.

    1. SHG Post author

      While I’ve let your comment post, I’m not going to say anything. The fact that you would write this, unless you’re trolling, suggests to me that you need to get some help.

    2. Bill

      If my recollection serves, Timothy McVeigh was chomping at the bit to get executed (ostensibly to get the notoriety that came with it) so it works against law enforcement. I know we can’t expect Politicians to be honest, but he should just admit “I support it b/c I’m towing my party line.”

  3. MJM

    Maybe next week the “honorable” Representative Reichert will write about Sam Glesty Waters, the “first” Green River Killer. Probably not.

  4. Russell Teapot

    Greenfield and Reichert have both proved nothing. Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence. A non-zero number of monsters have not committed crimes because they do fear the death penalty. Reichert is oddly concerned with a single monster that did not fear the death penalty while committing crimes, and then Greenfield wrongly assumes these are the only types of monsters. For example, assume a man robs a bank defended with an armed guard and risks immediate death. Eliminating the armed guard (i.e. the potential of immediate death) will result in more robberies (i.e. crimes) – the non-zero amount of bank robbers afraid of armed guards would rob the bank, in addition to those who don’t fear armed guards.

    1. SHG Post author

      While Reichert was “proving,” I was challenging his proof, not affirmatively proving the opposite. There’s a difference.

  5. Russell Teapot

    Follow up. There are costs to everything (e.g. innocent people executed or killed), but the issue remains whether the benefits are greater (e.g. defense of life and property).

    1. SHG Post author

      While your comment is overly simplistic, yes, the death penalty is a cost benefit analysis. But no, it is not the “defense of life and property.” Property is never worth a life, except to Texans who hold other people’s lives (not their own, which is invaluable, but other people’s) in low esteem. The “defense of life” is nonsensical, as the death penalty comes afterward, making it retribution, not defense.

      1. Russell Teapot

        Food is property and is required to preserve life (i.e. starvation). Shelter is property and is required to preserve life (e.g. hypothermia). Money, also property, may be required to procure food and shelter to preserve life. Nations throughout history have battled for land and sea, resulting in innumerable deaths. To the contrary, property may be worth a life.

        Your comment may also be overly simplistic. The death penalty is retribution and a warning to others (i.e. postponed risk of death). The warning may not be as effective as a security guard (i.e. immediate risk of death), but a non-zero amount of monsters will consider it while contemplating a crime and not act.

        1. SHG Post author

          Meh. If you’re starving, life is at risk. Let’s not get silly. This is argumentum ad absurdum. It’s neither interesting nor worth the time.

          1. Russell Teapot

            I don’t know what is silly or absurd about using deadly force to protect property that sustains life. What life is not at risk whenever property is stolen?

            I understand your response, “I’m going to take my ball and go home!” For most people it’s never interesting nor worth their time when losing any debate. I feel the opposite and also bored – less clichés about property never being worth a life, more original forms of opposition (e.g. Reichert and the fallacy of misleading vividness) .

            1. SHG Post author

              You may be right that I lost the debate, despite no other reader chiming in to support the merit of your point, but whether your argument is as strong as you think it is, or as silly and pedestrian as I think it is, needs to be tested.

              Since you’ve come here to demonstrate the brilliance of your argument, and I neither came to you nor know or give a shit who you are, I urge you to start a blog, demonstrate your brilliance, gain the confidence of readers and compel me to come to your blog to argue the merit of my perspective. If you accomplish that, you win.

              Until then, you’re just another unknown guy on the internet, one of millions, who thinks his brilliance is unappreciated and that he wins because someone like me finds his thoughts unworthy of more of my time. See how that works?

            2. Russell Teapot

              “You may be right that I lost the debate, despite no other reader chiming in to support the merit of your point…”
              Another logical fallacy – appeal to authority.

              “Since you’ve come here to demonstrate the brilliance of your argument, and I neither came to you nor know or give a shit who you are…”
              You came to the world with a public blog, and I deeply appreciate your commentary given your years of experience in practicing criminal law. I am a part of the same world and prefer privacy. None of that says anything about my ideas (i.e. straw man arguments).

              “Until then, you’re just another unknown guy on the internet, one of millions, who thinks his brilliance is unappreciated…”
              Ad hominem attacks are boring. I am not “brilliant” and one of billions, but my ideas are what matter if they be true. I obviously don’t care about accolades because of my preference for privacy, but refutation of my ideas (i.e. the truth). You spend too much time attacking the person (e.g. demeaning Texans) relative to attacking the idea.

            3. SHG Post author

              And yet you persist. Your ideas are here for all to see. You misconstrue my explaining the reality of the internet to you as yet another argument. I’m not arguing with you, and if your ideas, which are here for all to see, are persuasive, then they’re persuasive. I merely explain why it’s not as interesting for me to continue to engage with you as it is for you to continue to engage with me.

              And whether you’re an experienced lawyer or a precocious 12 year old, I don’t know. Either way, I’m not obliged to argue with every comer with a keyboard just because he feels the need to persist. Plenty of people come here to do as you’ve done. My response is generic for me, though it’s personal for you. You may be the center of your universe, but you’re not the center of mine. And that’s all there is.

            4. Sgt. Schultz

              Your argument wasn’t interesting to begin with,it didn’t get any more interesting as you went along. Just fill out the butthurt form and move on. And most Texans are morons. Not all, but most. That’s just the way it is.

            5. Anon Prof

              Your death penalty position was inconsequential, but your abuse of logical fallacies is an outrage. If you’re going to use them, do so correctly. You went 0 for 3. You are hereby directed to cease and desist using logical fallacies until you learn what they mean.

            6. SHG Post author

              I noted the same thing and considered pointing it out, but it struck me that it was more likely to bring about another round of Russell, and I decided it wasn’t worth it. So, if Russell wants to argue about his abuse of logical fallacies, I leave it to you to engage. As for me, I demur.

  6. mud man

    I think maybe you are underestimating the social importance of confession to some, given that epistemology always has loopholes, reasonable doubt, conflicting assertions, like that. The two important things are that blame be assigned, and that the oppressed take responsibility for their oppression.

    Torture would be useful, but as it is they have to do with what they’ve got.

    1. SHG Post author

      Upon even the slightest torture, I plan to take full responsibility for kidnapping the Lindbergh baby. Screw Bruno Hauptmann. So yes, they’re pretty much the same thing.

  7. Rick Horowitz

    You may have been aiming at this in the next-to-last paragraph; I could see a way in which what I’m about to say may be implied there.

    Many, if not almost all, death penalty cases either do not result in executions, or do not do so without a rather high cost, and a lot of time and energy investment by prosecutor’s defending the verdict. So if Reichert’s argument really included a “saved time and money” element, that alone leaves it without merit.

    Meanwhile, only an idiot can doubt that we have executed convicted people who had not actually committed the crime for which they were convicted. I get tired of the number of discussions I’ve been involved in where people are okay with that. I can only assume that they’re okay with it because they are not the wrongly-convicted candidate for death.

    Ultimately, Reichert’s argument is nothing more than fear-mongering cost-benefit analysis. The fear-mongering is pure b.s. “More cases will go to trial and monsters like Ridgway could hold on to their secrets forever or even walk free.”

    Uh, right. The likelihood that falsely-accused people will go free is fairly low; the idea that “monsters like Ridgway could…even walk free” is laughable, at best.

    And the latter aspect of Reichert’s complaint — the cost-benefit analysis — is of the worst sort. Despite the troll at the top of these comments, I seriously doubt that anyone planning to murder someone factors in the possibility of getting caught, let alone the possibility of being executed.

    I can only hope that the majority can recognize Reichert’s “argument” for what it is: brutish excuses for building and maintaining a brutish society.

    1. SHG Post author

      I avoided an affirmative argument against the death penalty and relied solely on Reichert’s putative argument in favor of it, so a lot of points were left on the table. But yes, one of his core arguments is how the system runs smoother assuring easy and cheap convictions due to the threat of death.

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