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