On Feb. 11, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that he was imposing a moratorium on executions as long as he was governor of the state of Washington.
“Equal justice under the law is the state’s primary responsibility,” Inslee said during his press conference. “And in death penalty cases, I’m not convinced equal justice is being served.”
As a Seattle resident who has been deeply impacted by our nation’s death penalty policy, I am proud of Gov. Inslee for having made the right decision, a decision that was clearly very thoughtful and well-researched. It’s one that places Washington squarely within the national trend, as the United States moves away from capital punishment. Six states in the past six years have abolished the death penalty; 18 states have abolished it altogether. Two-thirds of the countries in the world no longer kill their prisoners.
My involvement with the death penalty began with my friendship with a man named Troy Davis, who was on Georgia’s death row despite compelling evidence of his innocence. That friendship led me to
co-write, with Troy and his family, “I am Troy Davis,” which tells the story of Troy’s 20 years on death row and his family’s two-decade long fight to prove his innocence.
While researching and writing the book, as well as actively participating in the struggle to prevent Troy’s execution, I came face to face with dozens of the un-seen victims of the death penalty system. I have witnessed the excruciating pain of condemned prisoners’ family members and loved ones. I have spoken with family members of murder victims who told me that the death penalty system further injured them, prolonging and deepening their trauma.
I have examined data revealing that the vast majority of criminologists believe the death penalty does not serve as a deterrent to future crime. I have heard from corrections officers, including former wardens of death-row institutions, who spoke about the trauma executions have on staff who bear the task of putting prisoners under their care to death. I heard testimony, in front of Washington state legislators, from family members of murder victims. I have befriended many people formerly on death row who’ve been exonerated, some of whom came close to being executed.
The deeper I delved into the human impact of the death penalty, the more I realized that not only does it fail to heal many victims’ families or to serve as a deterrent, but capital punishment actually impedes our ability to meet those very needs.
According to a 2006 study of the Washington State Bar Association, a death penalty case costs the state approximately $800,000 more than a similar nondeath-penalty case — funds that are needed for victim services, crime prevention and solving cases, along with education and other social programs that could reduce violent crime. And the more I studied the death penalty, the more I realized how correct Inslee is when he says equal justice is not being served by the death penalty. Multiple studies across multiple states have affirmed that race, poverty and geography determine who is sentenced to death more than the nature of the crime itself.
Innocence is very much at the heart of my immersion into the death penalty. Inslee acknowledged, “When the ultimate decision is death there is too much at stake to accept an imperfect system.” Inslee remarked that he did not have reason to believe any of the nine men on Washington’s death row have been wrongfully convicted, and I have no evidence to the contrary.
However, it must be noted that since 1976, 143 individuals have been exonerated from death rows in the U.S. All of them had been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and sentenced to die. One is from Washington state.
My friend Troy Davis was executed on Sept. 21, 2011, despite an international outcry over serious doubts of his guilt. Troy’s case is a tragic reminder of the very worst outcome we face when the death penalty exists: the execution of an potentially innocent man.
There is only one way for Washington to be sure that it does not execute an innocent human being and that is by repealing the death penalty altogether.
Gov. Inslee’s moratorium is only the first step — albeit a big step — in the right direction. Proud as I am of our governor, I hope that someday soon I will be able to say that I am equally proud of our state legislators for standing on the right side of history and abolishing capital punishment altogether.