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Monday, April 29, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Embrace of death penalty shames state, nation

Special to The Times

The vengeful tone of your recent editorial on the death penalty ("The Green River killer and the death penalty," April 17) is chilling. It is such an alarming indulgence in vindictiveness that, as an opponent of the death penalty, I hardly know where to begin to dispute your argument.

Foremost, your attempt to minimize this complex issue into the single matter of innocence or guilt is absurd. To say that because someone is guilty of a horrendous crime is enough reason to execute an offender is too simplistic.

For example, in two of the three executions in our state since 1977, the Clemency and Pardons Board nearly voted to recommend clemency due to the overwhelming evidence that one offender was severely mentally ill while the other had once saved a prison guard's life.

The reasons to abolish the death penalty are numerous:

• It is an international embarrassment. Nearly all "advanced" nations have abolished capital punishment, leaving us in the company of such "rogue" states as Iraq, Iran, Libya and North Korea. In fact, the European Union will not allow other European states to become members without abolishing the death penalty.

• It is applied disproportionately against racial minorities, poor people and those who murder white victims.

• It is more expensive than incarcerating someone for life without the possibility of parole. Due to the resources required to prosecute a capital case, seeking the death penalty is far more costly than any alternative.

• It is not a deterrent. States that apply capital punishment generally have higher murder rates than those without it.

• More than 100 people have been released from death row since 1973 because they were later found to be innocent.

This does not even address the many other personal influences — religious, cultural or moral — that may affect one's attitude toward the death penalty. Nor does it examine the issue of whether capital punishment is a humane practice. Sure, we don't hang people in public squares anymore. And maybe fewer states burn inmates alive in faulty electric chairs, as has happened in Florida many times.

But as a force for human rights and freedom around the world, we lose much credibility by continuing to perform this barbaric practice.

The case of Gary Ridgway brings up other reasons to re-evaluate one's support for the death penalty. Assuming he is found guilty of the four murders for which he has been charged, what happens next?

The people of Washington state will then be subjected to a barrage of news stories about every phase of his appeals process and every event leading toward his execution. Consequently, Ridgway will continue to traumatize the victims' families and indeed this entire community, never more so than in the days right before his execution when the media feeding frenzy is at its height.

Furthermore, if we execute him we may never know who committed the other 45 murders tied to the Green River killer.

A friend who has mixed feelings about capital punishment recently told me how much it angers him that Mumia Abu-Jamal (an inmate on Pennsylvania's death row who was found guilty of killing a police officer, though he maintains his innocence) has attained celebrity status.

I told him that he would never have heard of Abu-Jamal if we didn't have the death penalty in this country. Similarly, Gary Ridgway would fade out of the headlines and into the anonymity of prison if we failed to seek the death penalty against him.

Maybe Washington hasn't blundered the death penalty as badly as other states. Still, that does not make the practice of executing people any more noble or humane.

As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "The arc of history bends slowly, but it bends toward justice."

The arc of history is moving toward abolition of the death penalty. Our country can continue to swim against this tide or finally embrace it.

Andrea Crabtree is a steering committee member of the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, www.abolishdeathpenalty.org

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