Published June 09, 2010
It's hard not to want to respond to crime with the greatest force possibleTHE OLYMPIAN
This month I wanted to write about birds. I wanted to talk about saying goodbye to my home in the forest, and hello to a different Olympia neighborhood. But then in late May a King County judge confirmed a jury-recommended sentence of death for the man convicted in the murder of four members of a Kirkland family. One week later a King County court ruled that the prosecutor may seek the death penalty for the two people accused of killing six members of a family in Carnation. And so, reluctantly, I return to the subject of capital punishment. In previous columns I have laid out in theoretical terms some reasons that the death penalty should be abandoned. But here we are faced with specific cases, and real people who have lost their lives in brutal multiple murders. How could we not seek the most severe penalty available for those responsible? The man convicted of the Kirkland murders claimed to have no idea what happened prior to waking up from an alcoholic blackout in a neighbor’s house covered in blood and surrounded by four dead bodies. He said that he figured nobody would believe his story, and so he burned down the house with the bodies inside. In the Carnation case, one of the defendants told a reporter that she committed the crime in a fit of rage, fueled by her own life experience as a victim of abuse. Can this explanation mitigate her culpability in such a violent and senseless crime? I cringed when news reports showed the defendant in the Kirkland case standing up at his sentencing and lecturing the court on the evils of the death penalty. The charge of vengeance doesn’t go far when a family has suffered the violent loss of two innocent adults and two beautiful young children. We are appalled by the crime, and naturally our anger is directed at the alleged perpetrator. But we must consider whether the death penalty will do what we need it to do. We want to end the loss of innocent lives; we want to be safe in our homes and to punish those who cause us and our loved ones harm. In considering these real people who have lost their lives, those who love them, and the community that embraces them, it’s hard not to want to respond to the crime with the greatest force possible. How could we be all peace and forgiveness in the face of such evil? Some believe that the death penalty should be reserved for the worst of the worst, and most certainly, these cases must be two of the worst imaginable. But we need to know whether the death penalty is necessary for public safety, or useful as a deterrent, or justified for retribution. The answer on all counts is, “No.” One problem with having a death penalty in Washington is that some people will want to measure our toughness on crime and our compassion for the victims’ surviving family and friends in terms of our willingness to seek death for the perpetrators. Our answer must be nothing less than the refusal to respond to this horror with further violence. The Kirkland defendant may have been in a drunken stupor at the time of the murders, but we are clear-eyed and conscious. We have a choice. A victim in the Carnation murders told her attackers, “You don’t have to do this.” It is important to remember that in seeking justice in these two tragic cases, we do not need to increase the homicide count. We don’t have to do this. Alice M. Curtis, a member of the Olympian Board of Contributors, is a school social worker and social justice advocate. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.