The state of Washington will not be executing anyone for at least three years.
That in itself is good news. Equally encouraging is how that decision came about and the opportunities it presents for eventually putting an end to capital punishment in the state.
“During my term, we will not be executing people,” Gov. Jay Inslee announced in a February news conference.
The moratorium does not commute death sentences or pardon the state’s nine convicts on death row. Barring other circumstances, they will live three more years — or longer — should Inslee serve a second term.
The decision is unique because it was not the result of a bill in the legislature or from a botched execution. There were no polls. It was the result of a yearlong study by the governor, reflection, conversations with penal authorities, and families of victims. Inslee went to the state penitentiary to learn about executions, step by step.
His conclusion: “It’s not right.”
His action drew predictable reaction from those who called it a misuse of executive authority and “shortsighted.”
Dan Satterberg, prosecuting attorney for King County, which includes Seattle, said the moratorium will not resolve the issues against capital punishment raised by the governor. However, he said, “let’s have an informed public debate and let the citizens of Washington decide if we should keep capital punishment in our state.”
The bishops of Washington, in a statement of support for the moratorium, also called for serious discussion. “We hope this will lead to a fruitful discussion about the dignity of human life, help us find the answers to the compelling questions surrounding the death penalty and eventually lead to permanently abolishing the practice of executions” in the state, they said.
The reasons raised by Inslee are not new. They have been addressed over and over: The sentence is applied unequally; it is rarely carried out. There is no evidence it is a deterrent, and a life without parole sentence is less expensive than prosecuting a death sentence through years of appeals.
These reasons can be addressed. More difficult will be the one Inslee didn’t mention but was present in many of the criticisms.
“To victims, it’s the wrong message; the relatives who have suffered the deaths. They have gone through 10 years or more of waiting,” said one state legislator.
A man whose wife and two sons were murdered said he was “appalled by Inslee’s blatant disregard for victims’ suffering.”
Similar comments have surrounded delayed executions around the country. Unlike issues raised by Inslee, which can be rationally debated, the emotional issue will cloud attempts to repeal the death penalty.
The assumption is that the relatives of victims have a right to the death penalty, that the death of a human being is something to which they are entitled. Not so.
An execution by the state “proclaims that taking one human life counterbalances the taking of another life. This assumption is profoundly mistaken,” the state’s bishops said.
Repeal will mean showing Gospel values to the survivors. We can join them in seeking justice but not in seeking vengeance.
Pray for a fruitful discussion. Reflect upon this final statement made in February by a Florida murderer who was executed and who wished love for himself and for “those who today take the life out of this body, as well as those who in their blindness or in their pain desire my death. God bless us all.”
Kent is the retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.