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Why We Should Dismantle the Death Penalty

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Governor Jay Inslee recently suspended capital punishment in his (and my) home state of Washington. In a news conference, he stated, "The use of the death penalty in this state is unequally applied, sometimes dependent on the budget of the county where the crime occurred." He then went on to say, "There have been too many doubts raised about capital punishment, there are too many flaws in this system today. There is too much at stake to accept an imperfect system."

Inslee's death penalty moratorium means that the nine men waiting on death row in Walla Walla's State penitentiary can breathe a little easier now -- as long as Democrat Inslee remains in office. While this isn't a get out of jail free card (no one is asking for that), it is a big win for opponents of capital punishment.

In fact, Washington is joining a growing trend among American states. Abolishment, moratoriums and indefinite stays of execution seem to be the direction the political wind is gusting these days. New York kicked things off in 2007 by doing away with the death penalty. Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon and now Washington State followed suit, tearing apart, or at least putting a halt to, "death by the state."

Ending the death penalty won't stop murder or violent crimes. There are terrible people out there who do horrible things. When all is said and done, we would probably be better off if most of them weren't around anymore. The thorny issue that sticks out for a nation working toward greater harmony among its citizens is deciding who gets to live and who gets to die -- and the godlike power behind such decisions.

Government is important, but it's far from perfect. I don't know about you, but whenever I've had a run-in with government authority, I often find myself wondering how honest, wise or partisan the people I'm dealing with actually are. If I ever had to be judged by a group of lawyers or my peers (I'm innocent, of course), the fact that the death penalty and record-breaking incarceration rates could be used as tools against me puts me ill at ease. For a country that distrusts its civil servants to the extent Americans do, the power we give people working in our criminal justice system creates an extremely odd paradox.

Yes, crimes need to be judged and dealt with, but we're not a feudal state relying on a vindictive king to enact justice on our behalf. If that were the case, then we should do like the English used to do and hang, draw and quarter people. (Let's not bring that back.) The government needs to be impartial, and guarantee to the best of its abilities the security of all its citizens -- even the accused, no matter how brutal the alleged crimes might be. This impartiality is hard to come by when the death penalty, which inspires deep passions all round, is still on the table.

If New York, which used to be a leader in state executions according to the Espy File, can do away with capital punishment, perhaps the federal government should adopt a similar stance. Racial bias in a tough sentencing environment, botched and problematic execution methods set against a backdrop of constitutionally banned "cruel and unusual punishment," not to mention the men and women who have been wrongfully executed, all point to the fact that a civilized society should work toward dismantling the death penalty.

If someone deliberately killed one of our loved ones, we could (I know I would) very well harbor fantasies of violent revenge. Under these difficult circumstances, that would be a very human thing to do. But it shouldn't be the responsibility of the state to carry out the ultimate penalty for us -- and no, I'm not advocating vigilante justice here. Capital punishment is the hallmark of a coldblooded dictatorship or a totalitarian state. We live in a democratic federal republic built on the rule of law, not fear and death. The ability to govern ourselves without locking everyone up, or threatening criminals with execution (regardless of how terrible they are), is a goal every state, and the nation as whole, should aspire to.

This article was originally published in The Blot Magazine.