Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Calling Time Out on an "Imperfect System"

[W]hen the ultimate decision is death there is too much at stake to accept an imperfect system.
That's Jay Inslee, Governor of the State of Washington, earlier today explaining why he called a moratorium on executions.

Bill Otis apparently hasn't weighed in yet, but his less hyperventilating, more restrained venom-spewing, not quite so vitriolic co-blogger at Crime & Consequences, Kent Scheidegger, has.  
This action is one more in a series of Profiles in Cowardice that we have seen in multiple states.  Get elected first, then drop the bomb.
Scheidegger begins with the tale of Jonathan Lee Gentry who's spent 22 years on death row and was probably running out of time.  None of Islee's stated reasons for a moratorium, Kent says, apply to Gentry who should clearly be killed ASAP.  Islee should lead, Kent says, making the death penalty swift and certain and ensuring that it's applied more frequently.  That'll solve all the problems.

Assuming, of course, that you begin with the premise that the more we kill the better we are.

In any case, Islee wants to be clear that he's not being soft on crime, not wimping out on the 9 men on death row in The Evergreen State.

Let me say clearly that this policy decision is not about the nine men currently on death row in Walla Walla.
I don’t question their guilt or the gravity of their crimes. They get no mercy from me.
This action today does not commute their sentences or issue any pardons to any offender.
But I do not believe their horrific offenses override the problems that exist in our capital punishment system.
And that’s why I am imposing a moratorium on executions. If a death penalty case comes to my desk for action, I will issue a reprieve.
What this means is that those on death row will remain in prison for the rest of their lives. Nobody is getting out of prison -- period. 
Of course, those on death row were, absent some very substantial relief, going to "remain in prison for the rest of their lives," anyway.  The only question was whether that lifetime of incarceration would end with a state-sanctioned murder. Indeed, since Islee isn't actually commuting any sentences, unless something changes, those men may be executed as soon as the next governor takes office.  Like Governor Kitzhaber in the state just to his south, Islee's only assuring that the system he identifies as too broken to allow executions won't allow them while he's in office.  

I don't want to seem grudging.  I am in fact delighted, as I was last week when our own John Kasich granted an 8-month reprieve to Gregory Lott.  He won't be executed next month.  Nobody will here in Ohio (the state that, as a friend once said, is "round at the ends and tall in the middle") until maybe May when Arthur Tyler's up.  But Lott's still got a date, just one closer to the end of the year.  

Kasich didn't give much of an explanation, but it's clear that he wants to give the prison folk more time to figure out how to avoid yet another mess like they had with the gasping-snorting-choking murder of Dennis McGuire which pretty much cemented Ohio's reputation for ineptitude in lethal injection.

Still, and regardless of duration or motive, I am as I said delighted when there's a reprieve or a moratorium.  Every day we don't kill is a good day.  Every time someone isn't killed today, well, maybe it won't happen tomorrow, either.  And it's pretty clear that both Kitzhaber and Islee would like to see the legislature do what they're not willing to do themselves:  Call it off.  Turn moratorium into abolition.

Of course, Oregon and Washington are left coast states with small death rows and history of not killing bunches of people.  Here, in what come of our license plates refer to as "The Heart of It All," we have a large but shrinking death row.  And more than twice as many executions as any other state in the north. And while Governor K is pretty clearly not an enthusiastic, kill-em-all-last-week supporter of the death penalty, both he and Ed Fitzgerald, his Democratic opponent in the November election this year, have specifically affirmed their commitment to state killing.

Our midwestern live-and-let-live keeps losing out to our authoritarian kill-'em-before-we-change-our-minds. Yet even here.

Reprieves and moratoria may not be abolition.  But they're a step along the way.  And every life saved today really is an absolute good. 

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